Glass Research Paper

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Glass made from melted sand was produced in ancient Egypt but long remained scarce and unusual. Over time hotter fires made glass manufacture easier, and as it became cheaper and more abundant glass started to change human life profoundly: blowpipes shaped hollow vessels and other containers; flat window panes made houses warmer and better lighted; and ground glass lenses for telescopes and microscopes enlarged the known world enormously.

Natural glass in the form of obsidian—a hard, sharp-edged natural glass formed from rapidly cooled volcanic lava—was a key material for the human tool kit as a source of sharp blades for knives and spear and arrow points. It was also an important prehistoric trade item in the Mediterranean basin, Europe, Mexico, North America, and Oceania. Anatolia was a key source of obsidian for Mesopotamia beginning about 8000 BCE.

Development of Human-Produced Glass

Human-produced glass in the form of glass beads was probably first made in Egypt and Mesopotamia in about 3500 BCE. Hollow glass technology, which produces functional vessels, dates to about 1700 BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and glass was beginning to be produced in northern Europe, Greece, and China at about this time as well. Glassblowing, a far more efficient method for producing vessels, was developed in the Babylon region around the time of the BCE/CE transition.

The Romans were the first major exploiters of and innovators in glassmaking technology. They used molds for blown glass, developed flat glass suitable for windows, and spread the use of glass throughout the empire and beyond. Much wider use of glass for windows followed refinements in production techniques by the Germans in the eleventh century and by the Venetians in the thirteenth century—techniques that led to higher quality and more attractive sheet glass. Mirrors came into widespread use in the eighteenth century following innovations in France in 1688.

Glass became a major industrial product during the industrial revolution when scientific research produced high quality optical glass and mass production methods. These refinements continued in the twentieth century with glass products becoming cheap, household goods.

Uses of Glass

The role of glass in world history is perhaps best understood as but one example of a common pattern in world history in which the generation of new knowledge leads to significant innovations and the embedding of a richer understanding in new or improved objects. These objects, which anthropologists call material culture, if they are useful, in demand and relatively easy to produce, are often disseminated in huge quantities. These objects then change the conditions of life and may well feed back into the possibilities of further exploration and innovation. This can happen in two ways: (1) by generating the wealth that enables more effort to be applied to the generation of new knowledge; or (2) by providing better tools for improved understanding. This pattern of innovation and change has occurred in many spheres of life. The pattern is enduring when objects are widely disseminated and it can be a cumulative process.

There have been five major uses of glass around the world over the course of history, and only a few were universal before 1850. Glass has long been used for decorative purposes in the forms of glass beads, counters, toys, and jewelry in many cultures across Eurasia. For this purpose, glass blowing is not absolutely required, nor does this use have much influence on thought or society, but rather on luxury goods and aesthetics. Basically glass is a substitute for precious stones.

Another common use is for vessels, vases, and other containers. Before 1850 this use was largely restricted to the western end of Eurasia. Glass was little used for vessels in India, China, and Japan, where pottery was the primary medium. In the Islamic world and Russia, the use of glass declined dramatically from about the fourteenth century with the Mongol incursions. The great developers of glass for vessels were on the Italian peninsula, first the Romans, and later the Venetians.

A third major use of glass was and is for windows. Until the late nineteenth century, window glass was found only at the western end of Eurasia. Before that time, China, Japan, and India hardly made use of glass for windows, using bamboo and paper shades instead. The most dramatic development of window glass was even more limited, taking place mainly in Europe north of the Alps.

The fourth major use comes from the reflective capacity of glass when silvered. The development of glass mirrors covered the whole of western Europe, but largely excluded the Islamic world. Glass mirrors were less popular in India, China and Japan.

The final major use of glass is for lenses and prisms and in particular their application to human sight in the form of eyeglasses. The concept of the light-bending and magnifying properties of glass was probably known to all Eurasian cultures, and was certainly known to the Chinese by at least the twelfth century. Yet only in Western Europe did the practice of making lenses really develop, mainly from the thirteenth century. This coincides precisely with the dramatic new developments in optics and mathematics, which fed into all branches of knowledge, including architecture and painting.

Glass in World History

The reasons for the differential development of glass across the globe are largely accidental—differences in climate, drinking habits, availability of pottery, political events, and many other localized situations. The reasons have little to do with intention, planning, or individual psychology, nor are they the result of superior intellect or superior resources. Glass did not directly cause deepening of knowledge in Renaissance Europe and during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it did contribute to these movements by providing new scientific instruments such as microscopes, telescopes, barometers, thermometers, vacuum flasks, and many others. At a deeper level it literally opened people’s eyes and minds to new possibilities and turned the Western world from the aural to the visual mode of interpreting experience. The collapse of glass manufacturing in the Islamic world and its minor role in India, Japan, and China made the type of knowledge revolution that occurred in Western Europe impossible in those places.

Without glass instruments, such sciences as histology, pathology, protozoology, bacteriology, molecular biology, astronomy, physics, mineralogy, engineering, paleontology, vulcanology, and geology could not have developed. Without clear glass there would have been no laws about gases, no steam engine, no internal combustion engine, no electricity, no light bulbs, no cameras, and no television. Without clear glass, scientists could not have seen bacteria, and there would have been little understanding of infectious diseases.

Chemistry also depends heavily on glass instruments. For example, without glass there would have been no understanding of nitrogen and so no artificial nitrogenous fertilizers. Consequently, much of the agricultural advances of the nineteenth century would not have occurred without glass. As for astronomy, there would have been no way of demonstrating the structure of the solar system, no measurement of stellar parallax, no way of substantiating the conjectures of Copernicus and Galileo. These findings initiated a line of inquiry that, through the application of glass instruments, has revolutionized the understanding of the universe and deep space. And in biology, without glass we would have no understanding of cell division (or of cells), no detailed understanding of genetics, and certainly no discovery of DNA. Without eyeglasses, a majority of the population in the Western world over the age of fifty would not be able to read this paper.

The role of glass in history goes far beyond science. Without mirrors, lenses, and panes of glass the artistic developments of the Renaissance would not have occurred. The new understanding of the laws of optics, along with the new accuracy and precision in painting were largely dependent on glass instruments of various kinds. The divergence of world art systems in the period between 1350 and 1500 is impossible to conceive of without the development of fine glass, which only occurred at that time in Venice.

Glass is not just a tool to aid in understanding the world, but also a tool to enhance comfort, efficiency, and health. Glass lets light into interiors and is a hard and cleanable surface. This was one of its attractions to the fastidious Romans as a raw material for vessels, and likewise for the Dutch—in whose country the use of glass developed most. Transparent glass lets in light so house dirt becomes more visible. The glass itself must be clean to be effective. So glass, both from its nature and the effects it has, makes hygiene easier to achieve. And, glass not only altered the private house, but in due course transformed shops, which began to arrange their merchandise behind glass windows.

Glass also helped transform agriculture and knowledge about plants. The use of glass in horticulture was not an invention of the early modern Europeans. The Romans had used forcing houses and protected their grapes with glass. This Roman idea was revived in the later Middle Ages, when glass pavilions for growing flowers and later fruit and vegetables begin to appear. As glass became cheaper and flat window glass improved in quality, greenhouses improved the cultivation of fruit and vegetables, bringing a healthier diet to the population. In the nineteenth century, glass containers made it possible for seeds and plants to be carried safely on long sea journeys from all over the world to add variety to European farms and gardens.

Among other innovations that altered daily life were storm-proof lanterns, enclosed coaches, lighthouses, and street lighting. Thus travel and navigation were safer and easier. The sextant requires glass and the precision chronometer cannot be used at sea without glass. Glass bottles created a revolution in drinking habits by allowing wine and beers to be more easily stored and transported. Glass even affected what humans believed (stained glass) and how they perceived themselves (mirrors).

Thus, at first through drinking vessels and windows, then through lanterns, lighthouses, greenhouses, telescopes, and microscopes, and later through cameras, televisions, and computer screens, the modern world built round glass emerged.


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