#TBT: Otto Baumbach: technician Godfather of particle physics

Otto Baumbach's glass capillaries were instrumental in the classification of radioactive particles

Name: Otto Baumbach 

DOB: 10 September 1882

DOD: 1966 

From: Niederwilligen, Germany

Area of work: Scientific glass blowing

What they did: 

Otto Baumbach was born on 10th September 1882 in Niederwillingen, a small village in central Germany surrounded by pine forests. His father earned a wage as a hunter, selling game meat such as roebuck. Otto, however, went to study in the local town of Ilmenau at the Thuringia School for Glass Instrument Technology.

In 1904, aged around 22, Otto moved to Manchester and started a small glass blowing business within the University of Manchester. He was initially provided with bench space in the Chemistry department but soon moved to another university building at 10 Lime Grove. It was from here that he built a successful glass blowing business – clients included Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who he supplied with sample tubes for his ill-fated Antarctic Expedition.

The soon-to-be Nobel Laureate Ernest Rutherford, also employed at Manchester, often called on Otto’s exceptional skills to create complicated equipment for his laboratory. The most famous of these was, in Rutherford’s own words, a fine tube, “…sufficiently thin to allow alpha particles from the [radioactive] emanation and its products to escape, but sufficiently strong to withstand atmospheric pressure.” The apparatus allowed Rutherford to prove his theory that alpha particles were identical to helium nuclei. Such was the importance of Otto’s contribution that it is sometimes referred to as the Rutherford-Royds-Baumbach experiment.

Otto was interned during the Second World War, having already been interned during the First. It has been said that Otto’s internment during the Great War all but ended experimental science at the university. Amazingly, nine years of incarceration did not embitter him and he became a naturalised British subject in November 1946.

Otto died in 1966. The glass blowing company he set up between the wars continued trading until 1982.

Without them… 

Manchester may not have become the international centre of particle physics it is today

To learn more, please visit: Andy Connelly's #technicianjourney Blog

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