Today’s scientific glassware is a product of over 6,000 years of glass-making.
Glass occurs naturally in the mouths of volcanoes. It’s a dark material called obsidian that early man used for the tops of spears. Archaeologists believe that glass made by man dates back to around 4,000 BC, when it was used to coat beads made of stone. The glazing substance is more correctly called faience, a form of sintered quartz.
The discovery of glass was probably accidental. Early societies used blocks of sodium or potassium nitrate (commonly called saltpetre or potash) as a support for cooking vessels on a fire and as a way to encourage the fire to burn. In a large fire the blocks may have melted in the heat and reacted with underlying sand to form a molten form of glass.
However, glass containers took a longer time to develop. It was possibly around 1,500 BC that societies began to make glass containers, the precursors of today’s scientific glassware. Glass-blowing developed in the first century AD. Colours were produced by adding traces of impurities, ranging from minerals to ashes of burned plants, to the molten glass.
The Romans introduced glass to Britain, but they kept their technology to themselves. These were very closely guarded secrets and were not released until the fifth century AD, during the disintegration of the Roman Empire. One of the first locations to earn a reputation for producing magnificent glass was Venice, a position it still holds today. Glass-making technology has been known in Britain since the seventh century in Cumbria and in the 13th century in Surrey and Sussex.
Modern glass in Britain dates from 1845, when the Excise Act was repealed and removed the tax on glass. Glass’s use domestically and in all forms of buildings received a boost with the construction of Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition. A semi-automatic glass-blowing process for making bottles was developed in Yorkshire in the 1880s. This was developed in the USA to a fully automated process by Michael Owens of Illinois.
It took the First World War and Britain being cut off from overseas glass supplies for scientific glassware blowing to develop as a precise trade rather than a craft. Today glass-making is a high-tech industry where scientific glass often has to be custom-designed for each research experiment. Ultra-high-tech electronic, thermochromic and photochromic glasses respond to the smallest external stimuli.
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