Leidse instrumentmakers School: delivering top notch instrument makers for the past 115 years

Founded in 1901 by professor Kamerlingh Onnes, the Leidse instrumentmakers School (LiS) has been steadily delivering top notch instrument makers for the past 115 years. This fall, LiS will be celebrating the official opening of its new building. In other words: it’s high time to catch up with LiS director Dick Harms.

You’ve been dreaming about expanding the LiS building for years, how did it finally happen?

Actually, it’s a typical Leiden Bio Science Park story. We had been trying to raise the money to expand for quite a while, but our efforts at the Ministry of Education kept failing. Then, two years ago, biking home from work, I got hit by a car on the Zernikedreef. I had to visit my physician, who did not only diagnose me with three bruised and one broken rib, but also mentioned that if I was looking to expand the school, I should contact certain people at political party D66. So I did. With their help, we received a big part of our budget when the House of Representatives got to reallocate some money for education.
And I should add we’ve also received help from Leiden University and the city of Leiden. The university traded plots with us, donated funds and even donated some of the ground we needed. The city helped us conduct the required construction research and donated half a million euro. Then another serendipitous happening took place: we met Loek Dijkman, president of the Utopa Foundation, because his wife happened to take piano lessons at the same place as one of our LiS teachers. The Utopa Foundation graciously financed the other half of the new building. I was in complete shock: we went from zero to hundred within a few months.

The last couple of years it has been raining prizes and awards. LiS got chosen ‘best technical training’, ‘top education’ and even received the Golden Honorary Medal from the City of Leiden. What makes your school stand out?

Our students are very well equipped to make high quality instruments. Kamerlingh Onnes already recognised the importance of well made instruments, and so do a lot of contemporary scientists and companies. At LiS we have a very hands-on teaching approach and we expect a lot from our students. For example, our students can only do an internship once they’ve passed a practical exam. They work on instruments during the four years of their study. Some graduation projects have been hugely innovative and well received in the bio, health and life sciences.
Take the two students who developed a ‘pollen sniffer’, a little machine that researchers now use to take samples of pollen levels at certain places. And what about the students who worked on a very specific hydraulic mechanism used in the exercise equipment astronauts are currently training with at the International Space Station?

Do you ever worry that the digital age and high tech revolutions will make ‘old school’ instruments and instrument makers superfluous?

Not at all. Instrument making is a craft and cannot be replaced by machines or computers. Of course, we embrace and use new techniques like 3D printing, but our students just as easily work with techniques from 115 years ago.

Leidse instrumentmakers School

Breaking news

December 6th His Majesty King Willem-Alexander will open the new building of the Leidse instrumentmakers School.

Other, recent LiS news: new space specialisation

Interview by Julie de Graaf
Photo by Van Straten Medical