Even the Everyday can be Interesting: History of Glass edition

The lovely thing about history and science is that we don’t realize how much of it surrounds us at all times.  For example, glass, a common mixture of Silicones, Sodiums, Soda ash, Lime and some other pieces is around us at all times.  We drink from it, we look through it, we make art from it, we use it to gaze into space and at small things, we break it at weddings and we break it during drunken fumblings.  It has become an integral part of the American lifestyle and yet it gets very little attention regardless of its ubiquity and interestingness.

Physically, glass is a curious object because it has strange chemical structures.  When molten, glass cools, it attempts to form crystal lattices that would allow it to become fully crystal (“attempts”, let it never be said that glass is doing this on purpose) .  At the atomic level, icosahedrons form and prevent the liquid glass from forming proper lattices and cause a microscopic logjam within the pattern that gives glass the property of being neither quite solid nor quite liquid.  This structuring forms the basis of why glass fractures in the conchoidal way.  It shatters in large parts that stay relatively cohesive, shearing off from each other, leaving a sharp point at the corner of the break.  The conchoidal fractures are what allow obsidian arrows and knives to be so ridiculously sharp (some circumcisions were performed with obsidian knives in the past) and what makes broken glassware such a hazard.  Even today, there is talk about using obsidian scalpels for surgery because the stone is so much sharper than steel.

The first mention of glass’ creation was given by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historica where he described Phoenician sailors on a beach in 5000 BCE who had nothing to place their cookpots on.  They chose to use the blocks of Soda Ash that they were hauling as the block and the heat of the flames caused the ash and the sand to mix, forming glass.  As is true with most Roman historians, nobody believes them anymore because they had a grand manner of embellishing all their stories and limited archaeological proof to back them up (Atlantis is still MIA, Plato…).

The oldest glassware we know was found in Egypt between 3100 and 2500 BCE, and it began a steady rise to popularity from there on.  Glassblowing was invented in Babylon in sometime around the 200 BCE and glassware began to become available to the mass public.  When the Romans took on glassmaking, the system was further streamlined and sheets of it were beginning to be produced, with some glass “windows” being found in Pompeii.  The Roman sheet glass was not, however, transparent.  It wasn’t until nearly 1000 AD that the Venetians discovered a method for producing thin and clear glass.  Thin and clear glass was wildly popular because of the use it had as windows and storefronts allowing a shop to remain fully enclosed and yet not prevent the windowshoppers from viewing it (incidentally, we likely have the Venetians to thank for the act of viewing products through windows when shopping, but the term windowshopping was not coined until the early 1900s).  The Venetians did what every great inventor has done: tried to stop others from inventing it as well.  The Venetian glassmakers guild attempted to hide their method of production to allow them the monopoly on the market for clear glass, but it was to no avail and the recipe was ferreted out and shared with the rest of the world.

There are claims that the first colored glass was used in an image in 686, though that era of glassmaking would be unlikely to have an image like the Gothic cathedrals of the 1400s.  When Americans hit the scene in the 1700s, their glass industry had huge demand for the pressed glass that colonial America decorated their homes and stores with.  Henry William Stiegel founded a glassmaking business at the ironworks he bought and named Elizabeth furnace.  Stiegel glass (not to be confused with Glass-Steagall) was opulently successful, until taxation and debt forced Stiegel to sell his forge, where it was later used to make cannonballs for the Continental army.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, even if it comes from an everyday origin.

Citations, because..  Mazel tov!

Dat Glass though..:

Pliny is fun to say:

Timelines of Glass (you can only make glass jokes so many times):

That Glass-Steagall wordplay is my proudest moment of 2014:


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