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54 years in scientific instrument making at The James Hutton Institute

Graham Gaskin
Graham Gaskin
“Today we say goodbye to one of our most valued staff. Over his 54-year career, Graham has invented countless scientific devices, from adiabatic circuits for composting reactors to GPS collars and from spray driers for measuring minerals to multiple water measuring devices, and saved us tens of thousands by repairing complex instruments"

The James Hutton Institute is mostly known for its scientific and research work. But while it’s our researchers and scientists who carry it out, there is a small team who help to create and manage the scientific instruments that they use.

One member of that team in particular has had a lasting and important contribution to the science at the institute: Graham Gaskin. He joined the institute as an apprentice scientific instrument maker in 1968, on an annual salary of £477. Since then, he’s had a hand in everything from developing the hugely successful Theta soil moisture probe through to instrumentation that helped to measure the impact of UK power generation on surface water acidification in the 1980s.

After an incredible 54 years’ service, supporting science at The James Hutton Institute, Graham is now hanging up his tools to enjoy his retirement.  

Colin Campbell, chief executive at The James Hutton Institute, says, “Today we say goodbye to one of our most valued staff. Over his 54-year career, Graham has invented countless scientific devices, from adiabatic circuits for composting reactors to spray driers for measuring minerals to multiple water measuring devices and has saved us tens of thousands by repairing complex instruments.

“Perhaps his most famous invention was, with the late John Miller, a cost-efficient soil, a cost-efficient soil moisture probe called the Theta Probe. Delta-T Devices Ltd., who bought the patent and license to produce and sell it, tell us there is a multi-million-dollar market worldwide for the Theta Probe and that it is used on every continent, measuring soil moisture in agriculture, forestry and ecosystem experiments. It is even being used by FIFA to check football pitch moisture content, including right now in Qatar at the World Cup. Who would have guessed, a device invented in Graham’s workshop in Aberdeen would be used so far and wide.”

While, like his first mentor, Graham is an unassuming gentleman, very much preferring to be behind the scenes, we managed to persuade him to tell us a bit about his career and the highlights of working at the Institute.

So Graham, 54 years is a long time! How did your career at the Institute begin?

Graham: “I started work at the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research in 1968 as a school leaver; the building (now demolished) was then only seven years old or so. I was employed as an apprentice Scientific Instrument Maker at the princely salary of £477 and some shillings per annum (before decimal currency).”

Which department did you work in?

Graham: “I worked in the Instrument workshop, which had a staff of five. I was in the charge of rather crusty gentleman whose job title was Instrument Designer. The workshop had been started earlier in the 1950s, as part of the then Spectrochemistry department, for the purpose of making and maintaining analytical instruments based on both optical emission and absorbance spectroscopy.

“My immediate line manager was a kindly, unassuming and extremely competent Yorkshire gentleman who had previously worked in Natural Philosophy department at the University of Aberdeen. Before that, he had had a fascinating variety work in the engineering industry. Anything that I have learned about machine workshop practices is entirely due to his patience and commitment.”

What was the Institute like then as a place of work?

“I felt rather overawed by the senior scientific staff (among whom were some quite considerable, and sometimes eccentric, characters). In those more formal days, they were always referred to as “Doctor So-and-so”, rather that the “Jim”, “Frank” or “Tom” that seems to be the norm these days!

“Because there was far less automation then, the research labs carried quite extensive junior staff, often recruited straight from school. It was expected that these youngsters would attend day-release and evening classes to gain Higher National Certificates (HNCs), sometimes later becoming associates or licentiates of professional bodies. I completed an HNC in Physics, in line with this custom.

“There was quite a high turnover of these younger staff members, perhaps increasing as industries such as oil exploration opened up other local scientific employment opportunities. This constant changing of younger staff meant that the Institute was pervaded by a fairly lively atmosphere. Even in those days, the reputation of the institute and its senior academics meant that there were frequent visitors from both British and overseas researchers.”

At one point you moved to electronics?

“Yes, after I had worked in the Instrument workshop for six years, the Instrument Designer (by then entitled the Head of Technical Services) retired and one of the senior workshop staff called Bert Stuart took over the senior role. Two years prior to this, Bert had been asked to start up an electronics section and after his promotion, I moved across to the role of Electronics Technician.

This largely involved repairing and maintaining laboratory equipment, which was extremely unsophisticated by today’s standards, often involving valve technology. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, microprocessors began to make their appearance and I was encouraged to develop skills in the new technology.”

And then?

“In the 1980s, the Institute was involved in a large project to look at the effects of acid rain on the environment. This was called the Surface Water Acidification Programme, which had been sparked by criticism from Norway and Sweden that emissions from UK power facilities were a major contribution to acidification of surface waters in southern Scandinavia. Some of the scientists involved in this project got together with Bert Stuart to develop quite a wide range of instruments for collecting tree-bark runoff, surface water and stream samples.

“This marked an enjoyable period of quite high output from the workshop, with home-designed and built equipment including pit shuttering systems, automatic sequential samplers, tipping bucket water gauges, digital and temperature loggers and soil water content gauges.

“By then I had become quite interested in microprocessor and microcontroller technology and was able to apply this knowledge to the construction of novel instrumentation. Bert’s leadership and enthusiasm was key to this and other projects, which saw our equipment used on field sites across Scotland and in parts of Norway.”

The name of the Institute changed at some point; when was that?

“Yes, in 1987 a new Institute, the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute was formed when the staff of the Hill Farming Research Organisation (HFRO) joined us. This brought a whole raft of new work in developing devices for monitoring the behaviour of grazing animals. Again, Bert’s enthusiasm meant that we very quickly became involved in creating new instrumentation for various animal studies.

“One of the tasks that I undertook with my then colleague Allan Wilson was the construction of body-worn sampling instruments for monitoring animals’ adrenal cortisol content of their blood. These quickly became popular in the work of animal behaviour specialists elsewhere. We had components manufactured to our specification to allow us to send these units to researchers in various parts of the world, including as far afield as Australia.”

It sounds as though you enjoyed your job in developing instrumentation. For how long were you involved in that?

“I was involved until 2000, when Bert Stuart retired, and I was asked to take over from him as Head of Technical Services; a role which I did not enjoy. After nine years or so I resigned from this position, because of frequent spells of ill-health, but was then asked to remain on the staff of the Institute on a part-time basis, continuing to work on development.

"The main part of my new role was the further development of an existing spray drier device for the preparation of mineral samples for pXRD analysis. The original was designed by Prof Steve Hillier and Bert Stuart. I was to make it more compact for laboratory-worktop use.

“Since 2009, I have carried out a dual role in which I have undertaken this development, as well as continuing to provide an electronics maintenance and construction service. Since around that time, we also recruited another electronics engineer, David Drummond, who will now inherit much of the work that I have been doing.”

Were you ever asked to undertake visits to experimental sites?

“Yes, often when developing and installing monitoring equipment in various parts of Scotland. I’ve worked on sites from Northern England (on an Army ordnance range near Otterburn) to the North of Scotland near Thurso.

“I once undertook a contract to install temperature monitoring equipment at the Highland Park distillery in Orkney, where a bioreactor had been established to process distillery waste. In spite of a lot of hard work there (including night-time installation of a cable on a gantry over a public road!) I was not offered a sample of their whisky, unfortunately!”

And when was the present Institute formed?

“That was in 2011. The staff of the existing Macaulay Institute and those of the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Invergowrie were brought together to form The James Hutton Institute, a change which did not materially impact on my role.”

Any comic moments? And can you give an example?

“An annual Macaulay Lecture has been instituted and one year the late Sir Magnus Magnusson (of Mastermind Fame) was invited to deliver this in his capacity of Chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage.

“We were told that he would not need any audio-visual aides except a public address system; I was asked to control the amplifier. The lecture was due to start and the lecture room was filled to capacity by a distinguished and attentive audience when Sir Magnus entered with the Director and the Chairman of our Board of the time.

“Seeing me, Sir Magnus came across and asked “Are my slides ready, then?” I’m sure that I aged considerably in the ghastly, heart-stopping moments before I realised that he was sending me up!”

Any regrets?

“None at all! I’ve enjoyed a varied, challenging but highly rewarding career and am grateful for the opportunity for working in such a stimulating environment.

“I have particularly enjoyed working alongside the scientists – it’s been very rewarding working with academics and suggesting solutions to technical problems.”

Press and media enquiries: 

Elaine Maslin, Media Officer, The James Hutton Institute,, +44 01224 395089 or 0344 928 5428 (switchboard).

Printed from /news/54-years-scientific-instrument-making-james-hutton-institute on 26/02/24 01:24:01 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.