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Glass:: From the First Mirror to Fiber Optics, the Story of the Substance That Changed the Worldby William S Ellis
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneIn Nature's ForgeMost of the debris on the beach is newly out of the water, having been borne on the morning tide. It is a forlorn place, a palimpsest for the scratchings of shore birds, a small beach where dark, tangled seaweed rims the high-water mark on the sand, and where more than a few dead flounder and whoreson nettles are under siege by flies. The seashells are mostly broken, with nothing among them worth bending for.There is a vista of a bridge in the distance, a handsome gathering of steel rising high over a wide passage of water, and at night cars can be seen moving across the span in a dance of light. And sometimes there is a show offshore of large fish breaking through the surface in joyful leaps, silvery flashes woven through the spray. But that is not what we have come for, here to the shore of Chesapeake Bay in the tidewater region of Virginia.The beach where man first made glass: Was it like this, with gulls posted on decaying pilings? Did the Phoenician sailors who pulled ashore there, according to Pliny the Elder, hear the drone of bees around something rotting on the sand, as we do here? Pliny didn't say, but, writing in his "Natural History, he did relate a tale of how the seamen were on the beach preparing to cook over a fire when, finding no stones on which to rest their pots, used lumps of the material they were hauling as ship's cargo. It was a natron, a natural soda used at the time in embalming the dead. When the natron supporting the pots became heated and mingled with the sand, a strange liquid flowed forth in streams, and that, according to the Roman historian, was the origin of man-made glass.Straight-arrow though he no doubt was, the elderPliny wandered from the path of truth in the writing of the story. The making of glass by other than natural means predates his first-century A.D. account by 2,250 years or more, and it occurred not along the coast of Phoenicia, what is now largely Lebanon, but in Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq and Syria. Pottery makers of that time may have been the first to make glass, but not intentionally. In firing their pieces, they probably fused sand and minerals, resulting in the pottery being glazed with a form of glass. That isn't to say, however, that glass cannot be made on a beach using only the natural materials found there. We are here in Virginia to do just that, to gather some sand and seaweed and shells, and make of them a bit of the material that has been used at least as far back as the time of pharaonic Egypt, when mourners there caught their tears in small glass vials.As Billy Graham knows scripture, so does L. David Pye know glass. He has come down from Alfred, New York, where he is director of the Center for Glass Research at Alfred University, to collect, prepare, and cook the ingredients. He intends to make glass by invoking the infernal chemistry of molecules beset by fire, all the while following a recipe found in an ancient cuneiform text from Mesopotamia: "Take sixty parts sand, a hundred and eighty parts ashes from sea plants, five parts chalk, heat them all together, and you will get glass." The sand is on hand, of course, though nothing white and fine like sugar, but heavy, coarse. For the other two basic ingredients of glass, soda ash and lime (chalk), he will use seaweed and seashells, respectively. Driftwood will serve as fuel for the fire.As he cooks the batch, Dr.Pye will no doubt cast himself in the role of one of Pliny's seamen (all of us here feel the nice tug of forces of fancy), and, being a man of good and gentle nature, he is prepared to feign amusement if told he doesn't "look Phoenician.At first the fire burns fitfully, but then it takes with a gust of flame and heat. The temperature rises to 1,500 degrees F, and it seems that it will go no higher. The melting process requires a temperature closer to 2,500 degrees, and after two hours, the experiment is curtailed. Still, some of the sand's silica crystals have been transformed into something crude and highly discolored. A person of lesser scientific integrity might say that it was glass, but Pye will have none of that. The specimen is too refractory, he proclaims, and so he will try again, this time with a slight alteration to the recipe.It is the sand that gives essence to the glass and imparts transparency. While glass can be made from sand and soda ash alone, lime is added to make the glass less vulnerable to attack by water, and to control the viscosity so that the material isn't too fluid. The purpose of soda ash in the batch is to act as a fluxing agent, allowing lower temperatures to bring about the melt. Ordinary bicarbonate of soda in everyday household use can achieve that purpose, as can the natron of which Pliny wrote. On his next try, Dr. Pye substitutes natron's basic compound, sodium carbonate, for the ashes of the burned seaweed, and, lo, after several hours, when the fire has had its way with the batch, he pokes through the embers to uncover a small, roughly textured, blue-tinged piece of glass. It is a lump hardly worth keeping even as a bauble, but — there can be noquestion this time — it is glass.Dr. Pye need not have gone to all the trouble, since it takes nothing more than a strike of lightning on a sand beach to create glass; it appears like crust, in the form of thin (one millimeter, on average) tubes called fulgurites. Also...
It is the neon sign that blinks on the edge of our consciousness; the wavy, delicate windowpanes in a centuries-old farmhouse; the airy adornment of high-rise architects and playful distraction of daydreaming schoolchildren. Heat resistant or shatterproof, tempered or stained, this magical substance formed of sand and fire has done much more than brighten and beautify: it has changed the very way we live.
William S. Ellis brilliantly whisks readers on a marvelously entertaining journey of ingenuity and discovery, from the birthplace of glass on the ancient shores of Phoenicia to the crystal factories of Waterford, which only recently has leapt into the computer age. In prose as crystalline as his subject, the author celebrates the versatility and functionality of glass, and explains how a substance known to all but understood by few has been shaped and molded to serve mankind in innumerable ways. In these pages, readers will learn how glass has both shaped and been shaped by man's changing relationship to the environment; how it has brought vision to the sight-deprived and to human beings huddling in the dark; and how glass enters the twenty-first century yielding an almost unlimited horizon of possibilities.
With grace, charm and authority, Glass delves into history, invention, manufacturing, fine art, and the myriad faces and forms of this protean substance. Whether visiting the flamboyant glass artist Dale Chihuly, dissecting the creation of a twenty-ton telescopic mirror, sampling the history of Tiffany's magnificent lamps, or watching the design and construction of the greenhouses of Kew Gardens, this book treats readers to a multifaceted vision of a material eternally destined to die a violent death, and to be constantly reborn in a relentlessly changing world.
About the Author
William S. Ellis was an assistant editor and editorial staff member for National Geographic for twenty-seven years. He is the author of more than forty full-length National Geographic articles on subjects ranging from the homeless people of Bikini Atoll to the underground economy of Italy, and one of the magazine's most popular and frequently reprinted articles, "Glass, Capturing the Dance of Light," which was the inspiration for this book. His articles have also appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Nation, Reader's Digest, and many other publications. He lives with his wife in Sarasota, Florida.
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