History of Glassblowing, Who Was First?

By W. Joe Wheeler

Editor’s note:  Joe Wheeler is a Scientific Glassblower and a member of the ASGS. At 90 years old, he is very possibly the oldest working scientific glassblower alive today. Almost every day he goes into his glass shop and creates projects of either scientific or artistic handblown glass. He started his career with glass in 1942 as a precision lens engraver for Bausch and Lomb Optical Company in Rochester, NY. Then after 3 1/2 years in the U. S. Navy, in 1946 he apprenticed for 4 years to Hans Blaessig a German trained glassblower. Hans was a hard taskmaster, but the glassworking techniques he learned stayed with him over the years. Additionally, he worked with scientists to design and create glassware at the University of Arkansas, Purdue University, Dow Chemical Company, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the University of Hawaii, Litton Electron Devices, and Hughes Aircraft, Electron Tube Division.

Who Was First?

The earliest recorded use of glass was by the Egyptians who used it to glaze tiles, make figures and create the earliest beads. Excavations place its first known use to be about 1500 BC (despite the claims of the philosopher Pliny), who stated in his journals that the Phoenicians discovered a glassy substance oozing from under their campfires in the first century AD. The Phoenicians used blocks of soda to support their cooking vessels and the combination of heat, sand and soda is reported as evidence that they first discovered this magic material. Subsequent experiments to duplicate the Phoenician “discovery” have been unsuccessful. History shows that in the era about the time of the birth of Christ, given the combination of fire, and Man’s imagination, civilization entered into an age where glass emerged as both a functional and decorative material. Who was the first to use this marvelous material? The answer is not as important as the varied used that Man has devised to utilize it, for it certainly would be a different world without it!!

Whether by design, or perhaps by accident, Man found that if he combined sand with other materials and applied heat, he could fuse, or melt, this combination of materials and when they cooled, they held their shape and color. I prefer to link the first making of glass to the potter, who realized that by making a paste from sand and oil, then painting this glassy substance onto the surface of his beads, pots and vessels before firing, it enhanced their beauty and opened up a new method of decorating his wares. Even today the potter uses a similar glaze to seal and beautify his pots. The ancient temples are rich in glazed tiles, adding not only color and design to the floors and walls, but creating a more durable surface that would resist wear from the sandaled feet of the worshipers. So effective was the use of these glazes that to this day, archaeologists are unearthing tiled floors that have the same sparkle and color as the day they were put down.

Having unlocked the secret of compounding silica, or sand, with potash, soda, lime and other materials, to produce glazes, it was but a step to the forming of glasses on the outside of rounded clay forms, dipped in this molten material, then carving out the clay form on the inside when the whole had cooled. How excited the craftsman must have been – he was now able to create a vessel that would hold the oils, tinctures and potions of the day, and not absorb them like the clay pots he was skilled in making.

Ancient glass vessels are very unlike glass as we know it now. They were opaque, full of seeds of undissolved sand and full of bubbles trapped in the melting process. Nevertheless, Man was on the path to developing what was to be a common part of even our daily lives.

It appears no secret that glass was the mark of the rich and noble, for the primary source of early glass has been from excavations into the tombs of the rulers of the land. It wasn’t until about the Third Century that the making of glass vessels for storage and drinking became refined enough that the lower classes could even afford the simplest forms. The Vatican Museum exhibits glass vials unearthed in the Catacombs. They are seedy, bubbly glass vessels used by the early Christians to hold their oils and potions. Just by examining the shapes of these relics, we are able to determine that the glass workers of that time were using tools that even today are being used in the glass shops all over the world. Not unlike the glass worker of old, the modern day glassblower dips his pipe into the vat of molten glass and draws forth a gob of yellow, glowing glass, and using ancient tools, creates an expression of his talent. Repeating this age-old process presents a challenge to Mans ingenuity even today, and the advance of glass technology bears witness to this fact.

In the second century AD, the use of glass spread throughout the Middle East. It was a significant trade item, in the form of bottles, jugs, beads and amulets. It went to the Far East with the explorers and traders of the time, and, as its use spread, so, also did the centers of manufacture. The Greeks produced early glassware that shows evidence of being produced on a pipe. They developed the decorations of their glass vessels to a fine art. Some unearthed Greek vessels defy producing even today. In time the forms became more different and varied and by the Fourth Century, drinking glasses and wine bottles were becoming common. By refining the processes to produce these items, so, also, was their cost lowered. Now, glass vessels, cups, goblets, vases and bottles became more available. Competition was setting in and the glass houses outdid themselves to capture this market. Adding silver, gold, cobalt, and, yes, even iron to the melt produced rich and vibrant colors. These decorations enabled them to decorate and fashion into beads and stones to adorn the human body.

Although there were many centers for glass production, a center in Venice, Italy soon was to dominate the craft of the time. Good sands and the presence of forests to provide the fuel for the fires made Venice the ideal place to build the glass houses of the time. In fact, there was such a concentration of glass houses in the city, about 1400 AD, that it was decided to move this concentration of infernos to the island of Murano, out in the bay, away from the then growing city. They remain there today. The merchants of Venice, with their small ships plying the trade routes both East and West were quick to realize that the glass made in the glass houses of Murano has a ready market. Here was a product of great value – it could even be traded for GOLD! The wealth it returned to the merchants of Venice was a prime factor of the growth of Venice as a major trade center. In an effort to guard the “secrets of the trade”, glass workers were held virtual prisoners on the island. The merchants realized that by doing so, they were trying to avoid competition and maintain their monopoly.

So, also, started the fierce efforts to gain the “secrets” of the Italian glass houses, by coaxing, or even in some cases kidnapping glass workers, the working technology spread to the North. It went to Germany, France and areas in mid-Europe, where the sands and forests stood ready to embrace this new technology. Alas, the very act of trying to maintain a monopoly had created an atmosphere whereby it was inevitable that it would be lost. The fires of Venice were producing glass on an ever expanded scale and the merchants became richer and their trade routes became larger. Their successes, however, were doomed.

The Venetians were unable to prevent the movement of the glass workers and their techniques. Soon the glass houses of Murano succumbed to the competition of the French, the German and others, who by now duplicated and even improved the capabilities of the Venetians. Shortly, the quest for the secrets of the trade reversed and Venice found itself searching out the workers who by now had advanced a step ahead of them. For instance, in the production of glasses for the great Cathedrals of France, French glass workers had produced a new array of colors in their glasses. The demand for windows made from the French glasses overcame their ability to produce them. Reacting to a market that at the time demanded large quantities of flat glass for windows, a method was devised whereby a closed cylinder of glass was blown, the ends cut out, the cylinder split end for end and then sagged flat in an oven. Here was an efficient method of producing glass in flat sheets! Having solved this problem, the European glass houses began creating a flood of flat glass.

Imagine the delight of people of the time, after a millennium of covering the openings in their houses with oiled parchment, or cloth, to have access to a material which would not only let the light into their houses, but would also keep out the drafts and the rain! The whole world was the glass workers oyster at this time! The beads, or “Perlen” of the Bohemian glass worker found that his work was being traded for spices and oils in the Far East and there was an inexhaustible demand for his wares! Both men and women too, for that matter, had an insatiable appetite for objects to adorn the body and home. The Italian flair placed emphasis on ornamentation as well as function and we see examples of a simple wine glass being graced with birds, animals, flowers and figures. They were masters of the use of color and shape and the world is indebted to the Venetians for their contributions to the art. The political scene in Italy in the 17th Century saw the taxation on glass and corruption in government destroy the glass industry and it declined until it stopped, not to rise for 150 years.

Glass came to the New World also and the Founding Fathers were quick to realize that this new nation would be a giant market for the products of the glass houses. Workers were imported, bringing along with them the tools of their craft and glass houses were started in Jamestown shortly after the first settlers arrived in this virgin land. Here was the extensive forests for fuel for the fires, the excellent sands, so all the requirements were in place to create a local industry. It would be independent and not subject to the vagaries of the European glass houses. Starting up, however, was not immediately successful. As the forests disappeared and the production became more costly, the Jamestown glass houses shut down. The Dutch Company in New York even tried subsidizing the start of several glass houses. They too struggled to get started. New Jersey and Pennsylvania had excellent sands and extensive forests, so for many years the glass houses of New Jersey dominated in glass production. To the north in Massachusetts, on the Island of Sandwich, there arose a group of glass houses and the glass produced there still bears its name. The new governments were offering incentives to the glass houses to the produce window glass for the new colonies and, before long, the glass houses were turning out flat panes of glass produced by spinning molten glass on the end of the pipe, and cutting it into small panes when cool. The centers of the spinning process, known as “bulls eyes”, rather than being thrown away, remain as a collectors treasure and were most often used around the edges of windows as a decoration.

Modern day molding methods have tried to duplicate the look of the “bulls eyes”, but cannot duplicate the break-off point in the center of the spin, its sharp edges indicating the cracking off of the spun disc from the iron pipe. The effect has even been duplicated in plastic sheets, but falls short of the charm of the hand-made spins. Each spun center is individual and the thickness of the glass and its variation gives color gradations which defines its individuality. The glass workers of New England were also experimenting with overlaying a colored layer over the clear base, resulting in a cameo effect when designs were cut into the outer, colored layer. Designs cut into the outer layer were enhanced by the contrast between the two glasses.

With typical “Yankee ingenuity” and spurred on by the demand for glassware of all types, the early American glass workers devised a way to squeeze hot glass between molds, producing what we now know as “pressed ware”. When he cut designs into the molds, the design was reproduced in the hot glass, giving a cut effect. Mottos and slogans cut into the molds also produced glass cups, dishes and vases with popular themes of the colonial days. These, too, are eagerly sought after items by present day collectors. The glass shops released a veritable deluge of glass to this ready market.

Imagine, if you will, the time it would take to hand craft all the glass insulators necessary to support even a single telegraph wire across this vast land. With insulators placed on the wires every 50 feet, the number becomes astronomical. The machines to mold them were developed which enabled the advance of the telegraph lines to proceed as fast as the crews set the poles. America was no longer dependent on the European glass houses and this infant industry grew by leaps and bounds.

Meanwhile, in Europe, another quite different market developed for glass in the post Renaissance years. Medicine, Astronomy, and the sciences of Physics and Chemistry were leading Europe out of the Dark Ages into an age of light and knowledge. Man had studied the skies at night through the ages and by this time had only partly understood the heavens above him. His natural curiosity drove him to delve into the mysteries of the Universe. He knew that a drop of water magnified whatever it rested upon and with the advent of glass into his culture, he soon found that here was a material, not unlike the drop of water, that allowed him to examine the material under it. It allowed him to see details he could not see with his naked eye!

As Man began to understand the magnifying power of the curved surfaces he produced on glass, he soon was making curves that produced more and more magnification. By linking up lenses in a tube, the microscope was born! When he turned a tube with lenses in it towards the heavens, he saw details beyond his imagination! No one material in history has had such an impact on Man’s search for information – it was a key, and used properly, could unlock the mysteries of the Universe!
Refinements in the first simple microscopes soon led to higher and higher powers of magnification and the ability to view the unseen world about him spiked his curiosity and led to the major breakthroughs in understanding the causes of diseases that had plagued mankind through the ages. He investigated the extracts and derivatives that had come down through the ages. By understanding them, he started down the road to Medicine, as we know it today. Glass was an ideal material to investigate these elixirs, potions and gasses. In it, he could boil, evaporate, condense and store them. The glass workers of the world were called upon to produce the bottles, retorts and vials to assist the chemist in his work. The laboratories of the chemists of the time called upon the glass workers to make the special tools used by the scientist and a standard of types of glassware was ordained, giving rise to the beakers, flasks, bottles and vials we use even today. There developed a method of glass working called the “German Method”, an off-hand technique using glass tubing instead of the traditional forming of glass from the molten tank.

The demand for precise tubing and rods to satisfy the needs of the scientific community led to the development of glass tubing drawing machines whereby a consistent size of tubing could be made in large quantities. The state of the craft went from a gob of glass stretched between two glass workers as they walked apart from each other to an up draw machine which drew hot glass from a pot, stretching it vertically to a height were the top end would be cool enough to crack off into four foot lengths. Surely, as sophisticated a scheme as the up draw tower is, it merely reflects the adaptation of a hand process. In practice, the bulk of mass production of glassware is a modification of the old hand process. Making tubing and rod of consistent diameters for thermometers and volume measuring devices required close tolerances and it wasn’t long until glass tubing and rod was being drawn to tolerances of less than a millimeter.

Man rose to accept the challenge of satisfying the increasing demand for glass. By adapting ancient hand techniques, methods were devised to change the need for more people, into the need for more machines. He took a giant step at this point in time. Larger furnaces were built, loaded with sand (silica), and traces of lead,mold lime, soda and other trace minerals, and heated to the molten state. Rather than have the glassblower dip into the vat of molten glass, a drain was placed in the vat, and a continuous stream of molten glass, much like hot taffy, was drawn out of the melt. This ribbon of hot glass was chopped into sections, dropped into molds (nearly as hot as the glass), and a plunger pushed into the mold to move the hot glass around until it filled the mold. Anyone who has ever stacked dishes can understand the process. Stack one cup into another which holds some liquid, and see the liquid rise around the second cup. You can see the glass molding process done right before your eyes. It was that simple. Until then the process was very labor intensive. But now the machines could produce glassware around the clock, in some cases unattended. The resulting endless flow of light bulbs, dishes, bowls, flat plates and all the many types and forms of glass products, gave new life to what was to become a vital industry.
Now here was a material that was just “tailor made” for the scientific community in the pursuit of the nature of the earths treasures. Glass in its many forms was invaluable in searching out the “what and why” of the things that assisted as well as plagued mankind.

To study the nature of the universe, scientists needed vessels, tubes, retorts, bottles, lenses and prisms, all to study things which could be measured, adapted, and compounded. Glass has many unique properties desirable to the scientist: the ability to resist attack from practically all chemical compounds, transparent, sturdy, inert, easily worked in its molten state, able to be produced to close tolerances (making reproducible results possible in successive experiments), and neither adds to, or takes away anything stored in it. So, when original research is underway, you can assume that glass has entered into the final results. When Dr. Jonas Salk placed his Polio cultures in a sterile Petri dish, he knew there would not be any contamination from the host vessel. Not so with so many other mediums.

The staff glassblower lends his or her talents to the research efforts of the chemist or physicist, bringing ideas to life, a link in the chain of talents necessary for success. Each had his or her speciality, and as a team, the “hands on” talents of the glassblower lend support when needed. From this event was born the “American Scientific Glassblowers Society”, to “spread the word”. so to speak, to pass along information to the members. This information is invaluable for members, and the local and regional meetings keeps members in touch with new developments and events, notwithstanding its social value.

So, being , so to speak, a spoke in the wheel of progress, the scientific glassblower can proudly claim an “attaboy (or girl)” for their contributions to progress. (applause please)

Looking at man’s progress over the years, we do well to note that pushing back the frontiers of science has enriched and fostered hope in our daily lives, and promises that the same zeal for progress will continue forever.

Picture a time when the world was dark, man lived by the daylight hours, and awaited the next sunrise. He discovered fire, then a way to burn a stick and produce a feeble light. He must have thought “nothing can get better than this”, then somebody discovered that fat burned and made more light. WOW!

Another Pilgrim found that the bees made a wax that would burn, and candles were born. WOW! Sailors found out that the oil of a whale burned even more intense, and the whaling industry was born! WOW! Observing the Indians who captured the oil slick on creeks in Pennsylvania by skimming it off with their blankets, a man dug a well to find oil underground here at home, so there was no need to go to distant seas for whale oil. The birth of Standard Oil! (and the demise of whaling) WOW plus.

Think of this as progress, from whale oil for lighting, to the discovery of oil, to the invention of the electric light.

Ultimately, it was a glass envelope surrounding the filament that Thomas Edison brought really “light to the world”. Any number of experimental filaments, each fabricated into a hand blown bulb, from silk, to hair, to carbon, to finally a tungsten wire. Many, many bulbs fell by the wayside. Also, the first light bulb was evacuated using the “Toepler Pump”, a moving column of mercury to rid the bulb of oxygen. This pump is made of glass tubing, and is in use in some research methods even today. It is the historical coming together of glass and electricity. A noble beginning.

So, where did Edison get his glass envelopes for his experiments? A glassblower, of course, a necessary facilitator to research. This need also extends even to today. You can trace the history of those glass bulbs and tubes he or she uses back through the centuries, from sand formed around clay forms, to the Phoenicians, the Venetians, the Europeans, the Pilgrims, right up to the present day glassblower working with modern precision glass tubing, but with age old tools and fixtures. We can relate the mass production of the myriads of glass shapes to the adaptation of an original 134 years”hand” made prototype. Look in a wine store to see how the wine industry has standardized on the shape of bottles. A far cry from the “clay amphora” of medieval days. Someone had to say, “this works, lets make a million of them”.

Could Edison have dreamed of the trillions of light bulbs evolving from his first, single successful one? Besides generating the first light bulb industry, the very invention of the first hand made light bulb triggered the boom effect in a number of industries. Glass, not being a natural material, has to be made from elements dug from the earth, sparking the mining industry, as well as the coal and oil industry producing energy to light bulbheat these materials to bring glass to the molten state. Once made, it had to be made available to satisfy an anxious need to all mankind. Many industries were born as a result of Edison’s single successful experiment. Even now, the light bulb is evolving, from the glowing tungsten filament to a gas filled, coiled tube, and light emitting LED’s. What’s next?

Compare the rise in technology in the glass industry with any comparable industry and you will see that it has grown by leaps and bounds throughout the centuries. To make steel, for instance, the process developed in the mid 19th century and to this day, the process has improved but little, the end product is the same as the day the Bessemer process was invented. Glass production, however has anticipated new needs and has kept up with, and even exceeded demands. Originally, the soda lime, “soft” glass led the market for laboratory glassware, then in the late 20’s, the “hard” glass, PYREX was developed to prevent the railroad lanterns from lens breakage in rainstorms. Being heat resistant, the market opened up to pots, pans, dishes and ovenware that could go from freezer to oven without breaking. There is practically no kitchen now that doesn’t have an array of heat proof ovenware.

The electronics industry has always fostered needs for new and different types of glass, and today we see more and better glasses in the hands of millions in cellphones, tablets, computers, even up to the face plates on those giant television sets. Quartz “boules” are grown in intense heat to be eventually sliced into thin plates resulting in substrates for the application of circuits that make computers possible. They withstand the constraints of manufacture, and as the technology developed, and got more and more minimized, larger “boules”, when sliced, now accept more and more individual integrated circuits. Think of the problems solved between rolling hot “soft” glass out on a surface like the early glass workers did to make it flat to producing a cylinder of silica and slicing it to get a flat plate.

Historically, the glasses we know today are the product of meeting a need to make life simpler and more productive. From the ancient, seedy vessel to the computer chip, perhaps, like no other material, glass serves us in our daily lives. Glassblowers through the ages have worked with, and had the imagination to renew and improve this “magic” material. They also have assisted, by executing their craft, to enable others to expand their frontiers, in a way that defines man’s imagination and struggle to exceed.

And it continues……..

The Author:

W. Joe Wheeler