What can we learn from printed circuit boards?

This is a post that mainly exists because my research has thrown me a curveball and I need to think out loud about what I’m doing.

I research the history of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, a space lab housed in a Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere. (Yes, really.) Part of my research involves working with bits of stuff that’s been into space or is supposed to go into space – the technical name for this is “material culture” but really it’s just stuff. In material culture research, you poke the stuff, smell the stuff, gawk at the stuff and also do things like consider where you found the stuff and what that tells you about its significance. This is a big change from the kind of historical research you might do in archives, which is very text-focused (although you can consider old documents as bits of stuff, and that’s very useful too).

I have not been able to do a whole lot of material culture research, because it’s been 2020 and therefore everything has been locked down since March. I was supposed to be working with objects at the Science Museum and…have sort of managed to do that thanks to getting a quick tour round Blythe House (a big building in West London that houses lots of objects from the Science Museum, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum), taking a lot of photos, and getting a lot of help from my museum supervisor, Doug, who sent over lists and photos of all the space objects. I was also supposed to be working with objects from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, which in many ways is considerably more challenging – not least because it’s in a much more remote location and because it’s a working space lab, not a museum or archive, so I had a lot of difficulty trying to work out what was actually there without being able to set foot on site.

That said, there’s one big positive about rooting through the stuff at MSSL: the lab is actually open! I had to get permission to come in from 3 separate people, including the director, but I got in!

Most of the objects held at MSSL that haven’t yet been documented are printed circuit boards, like the one in the featured image. These live in various cupboards and many of them are still working objects, used to help measure instrument performance and degradation. (The working objects I can’t really look at – poking around at them would probably damage them.) The ones we were able to find date from the 1980s and 1990s onwards, which is some very recent history – but also very precious, because a lot of this stuff isn’t kept. Part of the reason these circuit boards got kept is because they’re subject to the ITAR regime – US legislation regulating the import and export of anything defence-related. Essentially, the US can at any point decide they want to look at these circuit boards.

I did also find some material culture objects that are not circuit boards, like the nose cone from a rocket and a full-size spare of the Optical Monitor telescope on XMM-Newton (which is bigger than I am) – but most of what I have to work with are circuit boards.

That presents challenges because there’s not a whole lot of material culture work done on electronics. Objects tend to be “silent” unless you know what you’re looking at, and technical objects like printed circuit boards tend to be even more silent because of how comparatively specialised they are.

So, what can we even learn from printed circuit boards?

The environment in which they were made. Looking at printed circuit boards and doing elicitation work with the engineers who worked on them (basically, sitting them down with boards or photos and asking them) can tell you a lot about the techniques used (through-plating, hand soldering etc.) and how people shared knowledge and experience to make them, as well as what their physical place in the lab signifies. It might be worth asking PIs about the circuit boards as well.

The materials they were made of. You don’t need physical techniques to do this but it can help. This can also tell you about where the materials were sourced from and about the supply chains and power relations. In addition, it can tell you about the restrictions on materials you can put in space – participants talked about this but material culture can allow you to go into greater detail.

Success, failure and difficulty. One of my favourite objects at MSSL is a printed circuit board from the Swift mission, because parts of it have failed – the epoxy glue is partially broken off. You don’t generally get to see evidence of failure in space science: failed mission proposals generally don’t make it past the stage of textual evidence (or mission proposals get recycled for years on end), failed missions generally don’t get much coverage, public failure is stigmatised and has professional and personal consequences. I have a whole collection of anecdotes about failure that people have told me (after I asked them nosily). Physical evidence of failure is really rare and this is a unique chance to get up close with failure and difficulty.

MSSL’s place in a larger space ecosystem. Although MSSL is physically isolated, it’s been linked in with academia and industry since before its official foundation, with participants telling me about who they worked with and where they got equipment from. The printed circuit boards and their integration into scientific instruments tell you about where components came from and where they went.

The interactions between mass-produced components and bespoke integration. Printed circuit boards themselves are produced on large scales (even if the “bases” used at MSSL are quite expensive). So are the components on them. But working out what the designs should be and how they should be put together require a high level of expertise, and the final printed components are relatively bespoke (only a few instruments might ever be produced). There aren’t many other material culture objects like that, so it’s really interesting to think about.

This is what I think we can learn from them, anyway – I’ve been rolling around ideas in my head since I saw those circuit boards. Hopefully I can make some useful and original research out of those bits of tech.

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