Once the preserve of subjects such as engineering, medical and physical sciences and archaeology, virtual reality and three-dimensional printing is literally making history. The technology is now an important way for historians to undertake and present research, says Jonathan Blaney, as he puts the Institute of Historical Research’s new 3D printer through its paces.

In August of 2017 the School of Advanced Study (SAS) took ownership of two 3D printers for its ‘3D Centre for History and Classics’. One of them, a shiny new Ultimaker 3, was installed in the IHR Digital office at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). With this space-age technology we proudly showed our colleagues our first test print: a whistle. They were unimpressed, even when we explained that you could blow it and it would make a whistling noise.

What was worse, our colleagues in the School’s Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) and our collaborators in the 3D Centre, had taken custody of the other printer (a different model, so that we can compare their features and learn the strengths and weaknesses of each) and were printing all kinds of exotic and elaborate things. Our whistle simply could not compete. But we had a good excuse – they had prior experience of this kind of printing.

What we needed in IHR Digital was a project that would test the capabilities our printer and teach us a lot about 3D printing. It needed to have lots of different types of parts which, when precisely printed, would fit together in a working mechanism. We decided to make a clock.

Work began in early December 2017, and there were high hopes the clock would be telling the time by Christmas. It has nearly 50 parts and everything is printed except for the lead weights which drive the mechanism, the gut strings (which attach to the weight) and a couple of screws and steel pins.

We have certainly learned a great deal about the printer. Clock parts, by their nature, have to be exactly right, and with 3D printers, things can very easily go wrong. Sometimes the print doesn’t stick to the bed and so the print head throws it around like a dog with a mouse in its mouth; sometimes the print head just stops extruding plastic but carries on moving around in mid-air; sometimes the print completes but is mysteriously incomplete. One of the main things we have learned is that things just go wrong sometimes, and you can’t always get what you want for Christmas.

At the time of writing it is nearly Easter 2018, all the parts are printed and the final piece of the jigsaw, the pints, have now arrived on a very slow boat from China. We just need to put it together so precisely that it tells accurate time…

This isn’t all we have done. An IHR colleague, a furniture historian, brought in a chair made by William Old in 1720. We imaged the chair using a Kinect then printed a replica at a 1/10 scale. The seat was imaged separately, and we can now change the rush version for a solid wooden one, which is how the chair was in an earlier period of its history. The rush seat is a restoration of the original 1720 style.

Once the clock is completed and proudly displayed on our wall, what next? Well, we would like to hear ideas for projects from researchers across the School. They don’t have to be clock-based. There are so many ways in which 3D printing can advance research in the humanities, we can only think of a tiny fraction of them. So, if you have an idea for 3D printing, even if you’re not sure if it’s really feasible, please do get in touch with us in IHR Digital or in ICS. We’d love to hear from you.

Jonathan Blaney is digital projects manager and editor of British History Online at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR).