skip to primary navigationskip to content

'Plum-coloured bricks': Opening of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory on this day in 1913

last modified May 17, 2013 02:16 PM
Professor John Mollon reports on the centenary of the official opening of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory

Cambridge Psychological Laboratory 1913


On May 15, 1913, the Vice-Chancellor formally opened the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory.  Ludwig Wittgenstein was present to demonstrate apparatus for studying rhythm; and from a letter written by Bertrand Russell to Ottoline Morrell, we know that Russell was amongst the guests on that festive afternoon.  The architect was Sir T. G. Jackson, who had designed other buildings on the Downing Site.  A description of the Laboratory was given next day in The Times:  'It is in the English Renaissance style, built of plum-coloured bricks, with stone dressings, mullioned windows, and red tiled roof.'

The funds for the Laboratory (some £3700) had been personally raised by Charles Myers of Caius, the first Director.  By far the largest contributions came from Myers, from his relatives and from his wife's family, the Seligmans.  The building was of three floors.  On the ground floor were a lecture theatre (accommodating 40 students), a room for experiments on comparative psychology, and a mechanic's workshop.  The workshop contained a small organ bellows, which was noiselessly driven by water power and could be started from various rooms in the Laboratory:  it provided air at constant pressure for blowing wind instruments needed for the psychoacoustic experiments that were prominent in Myers' Laboratory.  On the first floor were a library, a dark room and two rooms for practical classes.  And the second floor comprised six research rooms, one of them a dark room, and one a sound-proofed chamber.  The dark room was equipped with an arrangement allowing an investigator to enter without admitting light.  The sound-proofed chamber was built on two girders let into partition walls but protected therefrom by an envelope of insulating material.  The walls were made of two layers of clunch separated by an air space, within which were layers of compressed peat, cork composition and horsehair. 

Three electrical circuits ran through the Laboratory, one of 110 volts and two of 4 volts. One of the latter was intended to be interrupted at regular intervals (0.5 or 1 s) in order to provide a timing signal for recording purposes throughout the building.

This original Psychological Laboratory later became the south wing of the Physiological Laboratory.  From the start, it shared an entrance and a staircase with Physiology.  But it is curious to note that the Psychological Laboratory was completed first, and the Physiological Laboratory, was not yet finished in May 1913, owing to the destruction by flooding at the brickworks of 'the clamp of bricks laid down for the last firing of the season'.

We should remember the workmen who built the Psychological Laboratory.  For a 10-hour day, Masons received eight pence ha'penny per hour, Carpenters, Bricklayers, Plasterers and Plumbers, eight pence, and Labourers, five pence.  The accounts for the new Laboratory show that £53.6s.10d was spent on apparatus during the period January-September 1913.

It is a pleasure to acknowledge the contributions of Professor P. Mandler and Dr John Preston to this account of the Opening of the Psychological Laboratory.

                                                                                                            John Mollon