Glass—Its First Makers Lived Long, Long Ago
DIATOMS, microscopic single-celled organisms, float in the surface waters of the seas and constitute six tenths of the organisms that make up the plankton of the oceans. The word “plankton” means “that which is made to wander,” and plankton are said to be “too small and weak to do anything but drift at the mercy of the currents.”
They may be small, but they are hardly weak. When storms stir up nutrients from the depths of the sea, these single-celled algae known as diatoms launch a feeding frenzy, and in two days they can double their number. And when they double, they also double their production of glass. The book Life—How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? enlarges on this:
“Diatoms, one-celled organisms, take silicon and oxygen from seawater and make glass, with which they construct tiny ‘pillboxes’ to contain their green chlorophyll. They are extolled by one scientist for both their importance and their beauty: ‘These green leaves enclosed in jewel boxes are pastures for nine tenths of the food of everything that lives in the seas.’ A large part of their food value is in the oil that diatoms make, which also helps them bob buoyantly near the surface where their chlorophyll can bask in sunlight.
“Their beautiful glass-box coverings, this same scientist tells us, come in a ‘bewildering variety of shapes—circles, squares, shields, triangles, ovals, rectangles—always exquisitely ornamented with geometric etchings. These are filigreed in pure glass with such fine skill that a human hair would have to be sliced lengthwise into four hundred slices to fit between the marks.’”—Pages 143-4.*
Another group of tiny works of art flourishing in the ocean’s plankton are the radiolarians. These tiny protozoans—20 or more could sit on a pinhead without touching one another—also make glass from the silicon and oxygen in the ocean. The intricate beauty and amazing designs wrought by these creations defy description, for they surpass even the diatoms. Study closely the accompanying picture that shows one of the radiolarians with three balls nested together like Russian dolls, with spines of protoplasm reaching out through the holes of its glass skeleton to catch and digest its prey. One scientist offers this comment: “One geodesic dome will not do for this superarchitect; it has to be three lacelike fretted glass domes, one inside another.”
There are sponges that construct skeletons of glass—the most amazing one is Venus’s-flower-basket. When it was first brought to Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, its design was so spectacularly striking that these sponges became expensive treasures placed in zoological collections—until it was discovered that they were not rare but “formed a carpet on the sea bottom in the vicinity of Cebu, Philippines, and along the Japanese coasts at depths of 200-300 m [700-1,000 feet].”
One scientist was so impressed with it, and mystified by it, that he said: “When you look at a complex sponge skeleton such as that made of silica spicules which is known as [Venus’s-flower-basket], the imagination is baffled. How could quasi-independent microscopic cells collaborate to secrete a million glassy splinters and construct such an intricate and beautiful lattice? We do not know.”
The sponge doesn’t know either. It has no brain. It does it because it was programmed to do it. Who was the programmer? Not man. He was not there.
Man’s Role in the History of Glass
But man is here now, and visibly he occupies center stage in the making and the using of glass. It is everywhere; it surrounds us. You have it in your windows, spectacles, computer screen, tableware, and thousands of other products.
The versatility and beauty of glass have helped it to maintain its popularity. While it may break fairly easily, it has other strengths. It is still favored for storing foods. Unlike metal, for example, it does not impart a taste to the food. Some glass containers can be used for cooking. You could hardly imagine your favorite restaurant serving fine vintage wine in plastic cups.
Job compared glass to gold in value. (Job 28:17) It certainly was not as common in his day as now, but it had possibly already been in use for well over a thousand years.
The art of glassmaking eventually reached Egypt. The Egyptians used a method called core-forming. A shaped core was made of clay and dung, and molten glass was wrapped around it and shaped when it was rolled on a smooth surface. Then threads of brightly colored glass were trailed onto the surface to make various designs. Once the glass had cooled, the clay core was picked out with a sharp instrument. Considering the primitive method, some surprisingly attractive glass objects were produced.
It was much later that a new method, glassblowing, would revolutionize glass production. This art was probably discovered along the eastern Mediterranean Coast, and it is still the primary way of making glass by hand today. By blowing through a hollow tube, the experienced glassblower can quickly produce intricate and symmetrical shapes out of the “gather” of molten glass at the end of his tube. Alternatively, he can blow the molten glass into a mold. When Jesus walked the earth, glassblowing was in its infancy.
The glassblowing innovation, along with the backing of the powerful Roman Empire, made glass products more accessible to the common people, and glass items were no longer owned exclusively by the nobility and the wealthy. As Roman influence increased, the art of glassmaking spread to many countries.
By the 15th century, Venice, which was an important trading center for Europe, had become the major producer of glassware in Europe. The Venetian glass industry was centralized at Murano. Venetian glassmakers were highly esteemed, but they were forbidden to leave the island of Murano, lest their precious trade secrets be imparted to others.
Beautiful Venetian glassware did much to enhance the popularity of glass, but glassmaking was by no means an easy task. The book A Short History of Glass refers to a publication of 1713 that describes what it was like. “The men stand continually half-naked in freezing winter weather near very hot furnaces . . . They shrivel because their nature and substance . . . is burnt up and destroyed by the excessive heat.” In later years glass cutters polished glass using a rotating wheel and abrasive powders.
England has earned special mention in the history of glass. An English glassmaker perfected a formula for lead glass in 1676. The addition of lead oxide produced a heavy glass that was strong, clear, and sparkling.
The British Empire was at its height during the Victorian age, and by this time Britain was also a major glass producer. Specially notable was the great exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, the first world’s fair, which attracted exhibitors of industrial art and handicrafts from nearly 90 countries. While glass featured prominently in the displays, it was the Crystal Palace itself, with its central 27-foot- [8.2 m] high glass fountain, that stole the limelight. About 400 tons of sheet glass were used for this massive structure, which consisted of 300,000 hand-blown panes.
Yet, it was in the United States that the next major change in glassmaking took place. This was the perfecting of a mechanical pressing machine in the 1820’s. The book A Short History of Glass comments on this: “At a pressing machine, two men with minimum experience could produce four times as much glass as a team of three or four trained glassblowers.”
In the early 20th century, an automatic bottle blowing machine was perfected in the United States. In 1926 one plant in Pennsylvania used an automatic device to produce 2,000 light bulbs a minute.
Many artists and designers have been attracted by the artistic potential of glass. This has brought innovative design to glass products and the creation of more artwork in glass.
Glass is certainly a marvel. Apart from all its domestic uses, consider some of its many other applications—in the Hubble Space Telescope, in camera lenses, in fiber-optic communication systems, and in the chemistry laboratory. Fragile maybe, but so versatile and beautiful.
Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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Top and Bottom: The Corning Museum of Glass
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The Corning Museum of Glass