Glass blowing is a method of manipulating glass. It is used for creating both scientific equipment and decorative glassware. The history of glass blowing can be traced back over 2000 years to the 1st century BC. Syrian craftsman began using very basic glass blowing techniques somewhere along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. As the Roman Empire started to exert its control over the region glass blowing methods developed and spread across the area.
The Phoenicians created the first dedicated glass blowing workshops in modern-day Lebanon, Cyprus, Isreal and Palestine. By the 1st century, AD glass blowing had also reached Eygpt.
By the middle ages, glass blowing had spread across the majority of the Middle East and Europe and techniques had moved on considerably. Venice and the island of Murano were considered to be the centre of glass blowing. Venitian glassmakers produced Cristallo a very fine and clear form of glassware created using a mould-blowing technique.
The industry remained largely unchanged for several hundred years as the existing manual techniques were refined. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution in 1820 that a process for mechanically pressing hot glass was patented. Years of fast innovation then followed with many new automated techniques introduced. These changes took glass blowing from a cottage industry to the world of big industry.
The History of Glass Blowing in Science
Glass has been at the centre of the science for centuries and has facilitated several major discoveries.
The experiments carried out at Oxford University that led to the development of the lithium-ion battery used bespoke laboratory glassware. Lavoisier’s experiments with mercury which led to his Oxygen theory also used custom made glassware.
Glassblowing also played key roles in many modern-day inventions such as the lightbulb, television, the radio and fibre optics which are used in computer networking.
A Dying Industry
For an industry that has been at the heart of so many of man’s developments over the years, it’s incredible to think that the skills are slowly being lost. Although many of the basic scientific items such as beakers and test tubes can now be mass-produced on machines, the more complex and bespoke pieces need to be created by highly skilled glassblowers. The Heritage Crafts Association estimates that fewer than 50 glassblowers now exist in the UK. Many of these are nearing retirement age. They also believe that there are less than ten students learning the trade across the country.
The industry faces several issues if it is to survive. Currently, the only way to learn the skill is as an apprentice. It can take up to 10 years to train so that the individual can competently create the complex pieces of scientific glassware required. Presently, no establishments teach glassblowing, and there are no recognised qualifications.
The Future of Glass Blowing
Decorative glass blowing, although niche, is still a thriving industry in the UK. The issues are centred around scientific glass blowing and getting more young people into the field. The British Society of Scientific Glassblowers is trying to create a formal learning framework endorsed by city and guilds. They are also looking to set up a dedicated training facility, so the industry has an educational base.