Celebrating Sixty Years of Oxford Instruments

To celebrate sixty years of the University of Oxford’s first commercial spin-out company, the History of Science Museum in central Oxford has a new display on Oxford Instruments, called People | Science | Business.

The company was founded in 1959 by Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood  – who later founded The Oxford Trust – and manufactured the super-conducting magnets used in scientific equipment and MRI scanners across the globe. The business became an incredible success.

The History of Science Museum on Broad Street houses an unrivalled collection of early scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building.  Created to house the collection of Elias Ashmole in 1683, it became the home of Oxford’s University globally significant collection of historic scientific instruments and artefacts in 1924.

The display, which is located on the lower ground floor of the museum, is mainly drawn from Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood’s personal collection and succinctly tells the story of Oxford Instruments. The company began as a husband and wife partnership and combined Martin’s technical skills with Audrey’s flair for business to create a business that’s first focus was on building powerful magnets.

Martin joined Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory in 1955 as an engineer developing “high field” magnets for physics researchers. He saw an opportunity to extend his expertise, working with other universities and research institutions to make innovative and bespoke magnets. Before superconducting magnets, high magnetic fields required a great deal of power – the Clarendon Laboratory used a generator that had previously been used to power Manchester’s trams!

Starting in the Woods’ garden shed at the back of their house on Northmoor Road, the company had a series of premises around Oxford, from a former abattoir to a boat house. Oxford Instruments built the first full-sized superconducting magnet for MRI scanning in 1980 – a market that was to expand exponentially. By 1983 the combination of technical innovation and business strategy led to a successful flotation of Oxford Instruments on the London stock market, providing the funds to develop the huge opportunity that lay in producing MRI magnets. The company of two grew to dozens and then hundreds of employees. Sixty years later, Oxford Instruments is an international science and technology business but still has its headquarters in Oxfordshire. Building on its early heritage, today Oxford Instruments develops high technology products and services – like their battery, X-ray and nano technologies.

We now take for granted that research in universities can lead to commercial development and spin-out companies. When Oxford Instruments began in 1959 this was not a widely shared view. Not only did Martin and Audrey set up a successful commercial business but also several outstanding charities – such as The Oxford Trust, Earth Trust, Sylva Foundation and Wild Oxfordshire – that reflect their passions and interests. The Oxford Trust developed the first innovation centre in the UK and has helped build the foundations of the flourishing and successful science economy we have in Oxfordshire today. The exhibition finishes with a section on the charities set up by the Woods, including the opening of The Oxford Trust’s new science education centre and innovation centre at Stansfeld Park in April 2019.

Dr Silke Ackermann, Director of the History of Science Museum, said: “We are delighted to be telling the fascinating story of Oxford University’s first spin-out company and celebrating a 60-year history of scientific innovation. We are most grateful to Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood for loaning items from their personal collection and for all their help in creating the display.”

The display, which is free to visit, will run until the beginning of March 2020. For more information on the museum, see here.