Exhaustive list of useless crap that has accumulated in various labs

An epic Reddit thread entitled "These fucking scissors" has lab-techs and scientists compiling an exhaustive, definitive list of all the weird, useless crap that has accumulated in their labs, and the reasons why none of it can be thrown away. A couple of my faves:

Specialized Glassware of Uncertain Use
You don't know where it came from. You have no idea what it does and you can't find it in a lab catalogue anywhere. Even your advisor doesn't know who bought it or what it's for. It eats up space that could be put to better use for graduated cylinders or Erlenmeyer flasks, but in a way, it commands a sense of respect, even reverence. It has always been there and always will. You are sure it was unspeakably expensive when it was purchased, whenever the hell that was, and for that reason no one in the last 30 years has had the heart to throw it out. Your advisor thinks maybe someday someone will use it again. You think maybe someday you'll steal it and make a sweet bong or something out of it. But you ultimately find you can't. It's a piece of history, it is beautiful, and even though you don't know what the fuck it is for, you want future generations of laboratory serfs to have the opportunity to ponder its purpose.

Expensive, Useless Stuff From Back When The Group Had Money
Years ago somebody needed 10mL of a super-expensive reagent. Having just gotten some grant money, they bought 2L of it. Now you have $2000 worth of something you will never use, but you can't throw it away because it's too expensive.

Vintage Liquid Chromatograph
It used to belong to the Plant Biotech department, but they got funding for a new one, and your professor is sure he'll fix it up as good as new and get great GPC results out of it. The white elephant has successfully migrated into another two years of idleness.

These fucking scissors


  1. The liquid chromatography white elephant gave me a good chuckle.  We had a huge beast whose purchase probably expedited by a hefty kickback to the department chair.  It was never used. 

    1. I remember reading about a program where people with old lab equipment can donate it to schools in countries with poorer means, like in parts of Africa.  Even our cast offs are likely to be newer than what they have.  At the very least it will help improve the equipment to student ratio.

      1. If it’s something useful, but if you don’t know what it is, they’re not going to know what it is. Even poor people don’t really want useless stuff.

  2. As a former laboratory serf, I can attest to the ineffable staying power of useless glassware. And yes, we all really did speculate at length how to smoke weed out of it.

  3. I briefly taught at City College in NYC.  It was a chance to indulge my overwhelming desire to explore poorly thought out institutional spaces, and stories underground near what may or may not have been abandoned offices there were heaps of oscilloscope based machines and other crazy gear that looked straight up low budget sci-fi film.  It was wonderful, like stumbling into a cave of dinosaur fossils.

  4. When we set up a new computer “machine room” where I work, we discovered several mysterious pieces of glassware. Asking around revealed, (a), they were dessicators, (b) they’re actually high-precision objects, you need a gas-tight fit on the lid for them to work, and (c) nobody actually wanted them.

    1. One of my coworkers has used one just like that for plasma-etching a plastic surface. He drew a partial vacuum on it, then put the whole thing in a microwave oven to make a plasma.

    2. I worked with a gorgeous piece of glassware in college that was still very much in use.  It was a giant dewer vessel over 6 ft high and covered in little glasscocks, metal connectors, etc.  It was used for working with liquid helium.  I assume it was priceless and irreplaceable.

      I’ll never again joke to another student “Hey, turn that stopper *ha ha*” (on the dewer vessel).  When he actually started to turn it and I heard a hissing I almost had a heart attack.  “Turn it back!  Turn it back!”.  Cracked vessel avoided and lesson learned.

  5. I used to work in a bank vault; and one year they were cleaning house and we had a big, out-of-date electronic scale that was once used to weigh the hundreds with. One of the supervisors tossed it into the bin and all of the guys in the place made a collective gasp. After hearing everyone’s protests that you can’t just toss something that cool that still works, she grudgingly relented to put it back on the shelf where it was never used again, but refused to let anyone who could have used it take it home with them.

  6. Yup. I have one on my desk, a custom-made, gold-plated brass waveguide thingamajig with precision screw adjustments. None of the RF engineers has any idea what it does. All I know is that the local office could get the far-away headquarters machine shop to make ANYTHING they wanted for no cost to them. It looks like a few thousand dollars worth of shop time, not to mention the design time.

    1. Shop time probably not a few thousands. That looks like something my father in law would whip up in a day, if given complete specs. 

      1. With all due respect to his machining skills, I don’t think this thingamajig could have been made even in a week.

        You haven’t seen inside it. When dismantled, I see that it is made from several pieces that fit together with sub-thousandth precision, and there is a very fine screw thread turned into the big knurled knob piece. There is a precision waveguide cavity in there. The whole thing is held together with what appear to be dowels cut from the base material, so they had to machine the outside surface of cylinders into the brass.

    1. At first I thought it said “Exhaustive list of useless crap that has accumulated in various TABS”, and was referring to the state of my browser.

  7. I have two 1950’s high speed film camera in my lab. No one really knows how to use them or if they’re even in working order. Thing is, one of them is the same size and weight as a Smart car. No one really wants them other than the supervising prof. The consensus seems to be that we keep it in to warrant part of the lab space we don’t really need right now to put some future projects.

    This brings us to the next topic, getting and keeping lab space…

  8. I had those scissors, but mine were rustier, and one of the points was snapped off from dropping them in concrete.   Oh and I had it tagged with my name using that labeling tape (probably green) and a Sharpie.

    1. I was pretty sure everyone had a pair of “those” scissors.  My dad has a pair that are rusty as hell in a junk drawer on his tool bench.  I have a pair that came from my grandfather-in-law and look much the same.  They are always just one step away from being dull enough to throw away, but always there when you can’t find any real cutting tool.

      1. I still have a lot of surgical scissors that our stockroom guy brought back from the state surplus warehouse.  They were Korean war issue, packed in brown paper foil pouches and cosmoline grease.  He must have brought back 15 lbs of the things.  I probably took a dozen of them and there’s a pair on my desk now.  My only compliant is that they are curved scissors, but otherwise they are very strong. .

        1.  Heh…I brought back a Chinese control box for a truck mounted rocket launcher from Desert Storm. It has a couple hundred feet of four wire cable, two lights with no battery packs and the actual control box minus the launch key. Why the hell I brought it home I’ll never know but it’s sitting up on a shelf in my tool room next to a grenade box I got from a French Foreign Legion guy.

  9. There should be a discussion for accumulated nasty things in the home.  Like the asbestos plaster I found in a cabinet in the basement as a kid (on top of some asbestos sheets).  It was next to a box of DDT.

    1. A friend cleaned out his parents’ attic. His Dad had been a Senior Air Raid Warden during WW2. Among the old stuff in the attic was a small display piece made from two sheets of wood with slots cut into the surface and held apart by spacers. Inside were a series of glass vial filled with various murky, viscous liquids and clumpy powders. It also had typed labels next to each slot.

      It looked like the sort of thing that would have been circulated during war time to allow emergency staff to identify substances they might come in to contact with. My friend wasn’t certain the samples were real or simulated.

      My friend took it to the Police Station where the local Constabulary were less then willing to take it off his hands. The problem was the labels that said things, “Mustard Gas” and “Anthrax”…

  10. Without looking at the article first, I’d guess that it boils down to either bureaucratic inertia, or the fear of same. In my second-to-current job, one of my duties was doing the annual inventory of computer equipment for my department, as required by state law; much of this stuff was next-to-useless, and worth only a fraction of its theoretical value, due both to natural depreciation and also the fall in price of Apple equipment–some of it may have been worth less than what it cost me solely in time, but my supervisors were loathe to simply have it hauled away because that took a ton of paperwork. (This was in a state that I think had some not-inconsiderable history of state workers declaring equipment “obsolete” or “surplus”, buying it up themselves at a state auction, and making out like bandits.)

    In my current position, we used to have a manager who loved writing and getting grants and would caution us against ever getting rid of anything bought with the grant money. Since she left, no one is really sure of just how long we were really supposed to keep the gear, so we still have it.

  11. This is great! It’s nice to see some of these frustrations are not unique to our labs but are part of ‘the human condition’.

    Part of my job is to transition technologies from concept to manufacturing, and it is sometimes challenging to identify the appropriate level of ‘lab discipline’ depending on the specific project goals. On the manufacturing side, you want be very strict, because your process needs to be controlled. Every piece is inventoried, and anything resembling a ‘chemical’ is dated and tracked for expiration. On the prototyping side, you want to allow a little more slack, because sometimes you can learn a lot (and save a lot of money) by piecing things together from scraps and leftovers. But still, keeping ‘junk’ is not free, because storage space is not free, safety/regulatory compliance is not free, and disorganization is not free.

  12. When I was in high school, late 90’s, my chem teacher decided to clean out a shared storage closet. In the process she found many interesting things but most notably a gallon size glass jug of mercury that was still full. It looked cool but why a high school at some point needed a full gallon of mercury is beyond me. Of course it went straight back into its corner for some future teacher to find because who is going to throw away a perfectly good gallon of mercury?

    Also at some point the neighbor science teacher lost her pet lizard (can’t remember the type) who apparently survived on the run by eating the abundant supply of mice that also lived in the school. You never saw him but you knew the lizard was doing just fine when you would stumble upon a random bloody mouse part or more often severed mouse head. No idea why it usually left the head, maybe just personal preference.

    1.  In the 70’s our HS chemistry teacher found a couple pounds of metallic sodium which he gave to our resident savant maniac, who threw it off a railroad bridge into the river.  Witnesses said it gave the anticipated light show, but it was also zooming around like a Russian meteor.

      1. My university chem dept friend found a similar way to get rid of some metallic sodium and some large blocks of dry ice they had too much of.

  13. I was working with the Corps of Engineers and found an old electric eraser in a drafting table drawer with a polished aluminum body and a pistol grip…looked like a ray-gun from the 50’s…it made sparks inside when it ran and smelled like burnt oil and ozone…I sooo wanted to take it home to sit unused in my drawer for ever…

    1. My mom did some work with a T-square before Photoshop became a serious thing in the early 90s. I remember seeing and even turning on one of these electric erasers. Even had the eraser left in it. I still don’t get why the thing was so absurdly large.

  14. I wish I had the storage space for all the odd-ball tech/sci junk I’ve had the opportunity to hang on to over the years. From old Russian made tubes to 50’s era scopes; from luggable computers to unknown radio apparatus; from ridiculously old calipers to wonderfully old calculators.

    Does it seem that the useful to museum cycle seems to be getting shorter and shorter. And also that perhaps preservation activities are a little lacking?

    1.  I saw a display of Linus Pauling’s stuff from when he was doing lots of crystal radiography, projecting the x-ray diffraction patterns onto a big roll of butcher paper and measuring the angles with protractors.  He was quite the collector of big electro-mechanical calculators, so he had these breadbox sized number crunchers with the big crank on the side.

      1.  When I first joined the Army Reserve, it was for a light equipment repair unit and my job was to fix those manual calculators as well as manual typewriters. Talk about a serious pain in the ass. More damn parts than a car.

  15. When I was in the Army, I was in charge of the motor pool tool room. We had manuals and tools for vehicles that hadn’t been manufactured since WWII. This was in the ’80’s – when I asked if I could get rid of them, I was told no way because they’re part of our TO&E (table of organization and equipment). Stupid. When I moved to the Arms Room, I found tools and parts for weapons that the unit hadn’t been issued since before the Korean War. We even had parts for flamethrowers that I couldn’t get rid of because they could be used with the tear gas launchers we didn’t have. (btw, no they couldn’t have).

    Of course, my home shop is no better, I have specialized tools for cars I owned in Germany. Can’t make myself get rid of them because, Hey, it’s a tool!

  16. The “Glassware” description looks like a nod to “That thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game.

  17. I’m not a scientist, so have only hobby crap accumulated.  None of it gathers dust, as I tend to wrap it up in film so it doesn’t.  Like my watch-case opening toolkit.  Untouched.

    But!  These guys have, I recall vaguely, featured on BoingBoing before:

    Both might be interested to hear about things for sale.  Check out their sites and you’ll see why – they love gauges, dials, knobs, indicators, bolts – the works!

  18. This thread and thread on Reddit are crying out for a Facebook page that we can all toss images of our mad junk onto.
    I have a huge mercury manometer (thankfully empty) in my lab that was used to calibrate the mercury diffusion pumps for a TEM (transmission electron microscope) that was decommissioned before I was born. No-one wants to throw it out because it is beautifully made.
    It sits next to the two (spare) ultramicrotomes that haven’t been used for at least 10 years because the new one is so reliable it has never broken down.

  19. I can’t disclose where this happened, but I got it from a chair’s meeting, first hand, from one attendee.

    Just last year, during lab cleaning in order to prepare the lab for massive reconstruction stuff, a box of thin grey metal foils was examined closely. It had been sitting there for a long while, and nobody knew what it was. It had been inherited from the former lab staff, more precisely the former lab staff of the former chair. Now, they found a notebook inside in which every piece was noted, and also when (and by whom) it was removed from the box, and when it was put back to the box. (I can’t remember it the first date or the last date in that notebook was 1938, but this is of minor importance.) Given the nature of good scientific practice, and that nothing possibly useful should be thrown away, the box and it’s contents were even more closely examined. It was found they were electrodes. Platinum electrodes, worth about 600k $. As far as I was informed, the money went to the lab reconstruction budget.

    On the other hand, some stuff get’s thrown away. The electronic garbage thingy down the hallway was containing an ATARI 1200 lately, and I saw a device of unknown persuasion with eight nixies in row… So sad… ;)

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