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Late 19th Century 1900-1925 1905-1914 1910 1917 1928 1959
The Discovery of Glass
According to the ancient-Roman historian Pliny (AD 23-79), Phoenician merchants transporting stone actually discovered glass (or rather became aware of its existence accidentally) in the region of Syria around 5000 BC. Pliny tells how the merchants, after landing, rested cooking pots on blocks of nitrate placed by their fire. With the intense heat of the fire, the blocks eventually melted and mixed with the sand of the beach to form an opaque liquid.
This brief history looks, however, at the origins and evolution of man-made glass.
A Craft Is
The oldest fragments of glass vases (evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry), however, date back to the 16th century BC and were found in Mesopotamia. Hollow glass production was also evolving around this time in Egypt, and there is evidence of other ancient glassmaking activities emerging independently in Mycenae (Greece), China and North Tyrol.
Early Hollow Glass
There is little evidence of further evolution until the 9th century BC, when glassmaking revived in Mesopotamia. Over the following 500 years, glass production centred on Alessandria, from where it is thought to have spread to Italy.
The first glassmaking "manual" dates back to around 650 BC. Instructions on how to make glass are contained in tablets from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (669-626 BC).
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.
With the geographical division of the empires, glass craftsmen began to migrate less, and eastern and western glassware gradually acquired more distinct characteristics. Alexandria remained the most important glassmaking area in the East, producing luxury glass items mainly for export. The world famous Portland Vase is perhaps the finest known example of Alexandrian skills. In Rome's Western empire, the city of Köln in the Rhineland developed as the hub of the glassmaking industry, adopting, however, mainly eastern techniques. Then, 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.
The Early Middle
Towards the year 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 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.
Until the end of the 13th century, most glassmaking in Venice took place in the city itself. However, the frequent fires caused by the furnaces led the city authorities, in 1291, to order the transfer of glassmaking to the island of Murano. The measure also made it easier for the city to keep an eye on what was one of its main assets, ensuring that no glassmaking skills or secrets were exported.
In the 14th century, another important Italian glassmaking industry developed at Altare, near Genoa. Its importance lies largely in the fact that it was not subject to the strict statutes of Venice as regards the exporting of glass working skills. Thus, during the 16th century, craftsmen from Altare helped extend the new styles and techniques of Italian glass to other parts of Europe, particularly France.
In the second half of the 15th century, the craftsmen of Murano started using quartz sand and potash made from sea plants to produce particularly pure crystal. By the end of the 16th century, 3,000 of the island's 7,000 inhabitants were involved in some way in the glassmaking industry.
France also took steps to promote its own glass industry and attract glass experts from Venice; not an easy move for Venetians keen on exporting their abilities and know-how, given the history of discouragement of such behaviour (at one point, Venetian glass craftsmen faced death threats if they disclosed glassmaking secrets or took their skills abroad). The French court, for its part, placed heavy duties on glass imports and offered Venetian glassmakers a number of incentives: French nationality after eight years and total exemption from taxes, to name just two.
From Craft to
A key figure and one of the forefathers of modern glass research was the German scientist Otto Schott (1851-1935), who used scientific methods to study the effects of numerous chemical elements on the optical and thermal properties of glass. In the field of optical glass, Schott teamed up with Ernst Abbe (1840-1905), a professor at the University of Jena and joint owner of the Carl Zeiss firm, to make significant technological advances.
Another major contributor in the evolution towards mass production was Friedrich Siemens, who invented the tank furnace. This rapidly replaced the old pot furnace and allowed the continuous production of far greater quantities of molten glass.
Added impetus was given to automatic production processes in 1923 with the development of the gob feeder, which ensured the rapid supply of more consistently sized gobs in bottle production. Soon afterwards, in 1925, IS (individual section) machines were developed. Used in conjunction with the gob feeders, IS machines allowed the simultaneous production of a number of bottles from one piece of equipment. The gob feeder-IS machine combination remains the basis of most automatic glass container production today.
Modern Flat Glass
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 process was further improved with the support of the US firm Libbey-Owens and was first used for commercial production in 1917.
The Pittsburgh process, developed by the American Pennvernon and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG), combined and enhanced the main features of the Fourcault and Libbey-Owens processes, and has been in use since 1928.
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.