Glass History

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Glass History

Glass is a type of solid material which is typically brittle and transparent. Glass is commonly used for bottlesglasses, furniture, windowsbuilding facades, and even eyewear. Glass is defined as an inorganic product of fusion which has been cooled through its transition into the solid state without crystallizing. Most glass contains silica as its main component.  The term glass was coined in the Roman Empire several centuries ago. 

Spark of Glass

Before the human race started to manufacture glass, they had found natural glass in two different forms. When lightning strikes sand, the heat makes sand to fuse into long, slender glass tubes called fulgurites. This kind of glass is commonly called petrified lightning. The tremendous heat from a volcanic eruption also sometimes fuses rocks and sand into a type of glass called obsidian.

Obsidian or Volcanic Glass

ObsidianIn early times, people shaped obsidian into knives, arrowheads, jewellery, and even money. Obsidian was highly prized in prehistory wherever it was found. The glassy material came in a range of colours – right from black and green to bright orange, and was found wherever rhyolite-rich volcanic deposits were found. The shiny beauty, fine texture, and the sharpness of its flaked edges made obsidian a very popular trade item.

It is generally believed that the first manufactured glass was in the form of a glaze on ceramic vessels, around 3000 B.C. The first glass vessels were produced in 1500 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The glass industry was extremely successful for the next 300 years, and then saw a decline. It was revived in Mesopotamia in 700 B.C. and in Egypt in 500 B.C. For the next 500 years, Egypt, Syria, and the other countries along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea became glassmaking centers.

At the early stages, glassmaking was a slow and expensive process, and required hard work. Glass blowing and glass pressing were unknown, furnaces were small, clay pots were of poor quality, and the heat was hardly sufficient for melting. But glassmakers eventually learned how to make coloured glass jewellery, cosmetics’ cases, and tiny jugs and jars. People who could afford them—the priests and the ruling classes—considered glass objects as valuable as jewels. Soon merchants learned that wines, honey, and oils could be carried and preserved far better in glass bottles than in wood or clay containers.

Turning point with blowpipes

glass BlowingThe blowpipe was invented in 30 B.C., probably along the eastern Mediterranean coast. This invention made glass production easier, faster, and cheaper. As a result, glass became available to the common people for the first time. The long thin metal tube used in the glass blowing process has changed very little since then. In the last century BC, the ancient Romans then began blowing glassinside moulds, greatly increasing the variety of shapes possible for hollow glass items.


Glassblowing is a glass forming technique that involves inflating the molten glass into a bubble, or parson, with the aid of the blowpipe, or blow tube. A person who blows glass is called a glassblower, glass smith, or gaffer. Free-blowing is a kind of glass blowing technique.


This glass making technique was used until the late nineteenth century and is still widely used. The process of free-blowing involves the blowing of short puffs of air into a molten portion of glass which is gathered at one end of a blowpipe. This has the effect of forming an elastic skin on the interior of the glass blob that matches the exterior, formed by the removal of heat from the furnace. The glassworker can then quickly inflate the molten glass to a coherent blob and work it into a desired shape.

First Golden Age of Glass: Roman Empire

Glassblowing was greatly encouraged under the Roman rule. Glass manufacture became important in all countries under Roman rule. In fact, the first four centuries of the Christian era can justly be called the First Golden Age of Glass. The glassmakers of this time knew how to make transparent glass, and knew offhand glass blowing, painting, and gilding (application of gold leaf). They knew how to build up layers of glass of different colours and then cut out designs with high precision. 

It was the Romans who began to use glass for architectural purposes, with the discovery of clear glass (through the introduction of manganese oxide) in Alexandria around AD 100. Cast glass windows, albeit with poor optical qualities, thus began to appear in the most important buildings in Rome and the most luxurious villas of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

The decline of the Roman Empire and culture slowed progress in the field of glassmaking techniques, particularly through the 5th century. Germanic glassware became less ornate, with craftsmen abandoning or not developing the decorating skills they had acquired.

Early Middle Age

Towards the year AD 1000, a significant change in European glassmaking techniques took place. Given the difficulties in importing raw materials, soda glass was gradually replaced by glass made using the potash obtained from the burning of trees. At this point, glass made in the north of the Alps began to differ from glass made in the Mediterranean area, with Italy, for example, sticking to soda ash as its dominant raw material.

Second Golden Age of Glass

Glass manufacture had developed in Venice by the time of the Crusades (A.D. 1096-1270), and by the 1290^s, an elaborate guild system of glassworkers had been set up. Equipment was transferred to the Venetian island of Murano, and the Second Golden Age of Glass began. Venetian glass blowers created some of the most delicate and graceful glass the world had ever seen. They perfected Cristallo glass, a nearly colourless, transparent glass, which could be blown to extreme thinness in almost any shape.

Sheet Glass 

The 11th century also saw the development by German glass craftsmen of a technique - then further developed by Venetian craftsmen in the 13th century - for the production of glass sheets

By blowing a hollow glass sphere and swinging it vertically, gravity would pull the glass into a cylindrical "pod" measuring as much as 3 meters long, with a width of up to 45 cm. While still hot, the ends of the pod were cut off and the resulting cylinder cut lengthways and laid flat. 

Glazing remained, however, a great luxury up to the late Middle Ages, with only buildings like royal palaces and churches adorned with glass windows. Stained glass windows reached their peak as the Middle Ages drew to a close.

By the late 1400^s and early 1500^s, glassmaking had become important in Germany and other northern European countries. It became important in England during the 1500^s. 

Lead Glass

By 1575, English glassmakers were producing Venetian-style glass. In 1674, an English glassmaker named George Ravenscroft patented a new type of glass in which he had changed the usual ingredients. This glass, called lead glass, contained a large amount of lead oxide. This brilliant glass with a high refractive index was very well suited for deep cutting and engraving.


Plate Pouring Process

In 1688, in France, a new process was developed for the production of plate glass, principally for use in mirrors, whose optical qualities had, until then, left much to be desired. The molten glass was poured onto a special table and rolled out flat. After cooling, the plate glass was ground on large round tables by means of rotating cast iron discs and increasingly fine abrasive sands, and then polished using felt disks. The result of this "plate pouring" process was flat glass with good optical transmission qualities. When coated on one side with a reflective, low melting metal, high-quality mirrors could be produced.

Glass in America

Sandwich Glass, an early American glass was made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, founded by Deming Jarves in 1825. In the early 1800^s, the type of glass in greatest demand was window glass. At that time, window glass was called crown glass.

Crown Glass

Other types of sheet glass included crown glass (also known as "bullions"), relatively common across Western Europe. With this technique, a glass ball was blown and then opened outwards on the opposite side to the pipe. Spinning the semi-molten ball then caused it to flatten and increase in size, but only up to a limited diameter. The panes thus created would then be joined with lead strips and pieced together to create windows. 

Cylinder Process

By 1825, the cylinder process had replaced the crown method. In this process, molten glass was blown into the shape of a cylinder. After the cylinder cooled, it was sliced down one side. When reheated, it opened up to form a large sheet of thin, clear window glass

In the 1850^s, plate glass was developed for mirrors and other products requiring a high quality of flat glass. This glass was made by casting a large quantity of molten glass onto a round or square plate. After the glass was cooled, it was polished on both sides. 

Modern Flat Glass Technology 

Flat GlassIn the production of flat glass, the first real innovation came in 1905 when a Belgian named Fourcault managed to vertically draw a continuous sheet of glass of a consistent width from the tank. Commercial production of sheet glass using the Fourcault process eventually got under way in 1914.

Around the end of the First World War, another Belgian engineer Emil Bicheroux developed a process whereby the molten glass was poured from a pot directly through two rollers. Like the Fourcault method, this resulted in glass with a more even thickness, and made grinding and polishing easier and more economical.

An off-shoot of evolution in flat glass production was the strengthening of glass by means of lamination (inserting a celluloid material layer between two sheets of glass). The process was invented and developed by the French scientist Edouard Benedictus, who patented his new safety glass under the name "Triplex" in 1910. In America, Colburn developed another method for drawing sheet glass. 

The float process developed after the Second World War by Britain^s Pilkington Brothers Ltd., and introduced in 1959, combined the brilliant finish of sheet glass with the optical qualities of plate glass. Molten glass, when poured across the surface of a bath of molten tin, spreads and flattens before being drawn horizontally in a continuous ribbon into the annealing lehr. Till today, 90 percent of flat glass is manufactured by this process. 

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