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Development of the Glass Industry

Humans have used glass since prehistoric times, at first fashioning small objects from natural glass such as obsidian, a volcanic glass, or from rock crystal, a colorless, transparent quartz whose brilliance and clarity are emulated in manufactured glass.

Ancient Glassmaking

The place and date of origin of manufactured glass are not known. The oldest known specimens of glass are from Egypt (c.2000 B.C.), where the industry was well established c.1500 B.C. Many varieties of glass were known during Roman times, including cameo glass, such as the Portland vase, and millefiore glass, produced from fused and molded bundles of thin glass rods of many colors. Glass was also used for window panes, mirrors, prisms, and magnifying glasses. Except for the work done in Constantinople, little is now known of the methods of glassmaking used in Europe from the fall of Rome until the 10th cent., when stained glass came into use.

Early European Glassmaking

Venice was the leader in making fine glassware for almost four centuries after the Crusades and attempted to monopolize the industry by strict control at Murano of glassworkers, who were severely penalized for betraying the secrets of the art. After the invention (c.1688) of a process for casting glass, France was for many years supreme in the manufacture of plate glass such as that used to line the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles. Late in the 17th cent. England began to make flint glass, whose lead oxide content imparted a brilliance and softness that made it suitable for cut glass.

Glassmaking in Colonial America

The first glass factory in America was built in 1608, and glass was carried in the first cargo exported to England. Although other glasshouses were operated in the colonies, especially in New Amsterdam, the first successful and enduring large-scale glasshouse was set up by the German-born manufacturer Caspar Wistar in New Jersey in 1739. Some of the finest colonial glassware was produced in the Pennsylvania glasshouses of the German-born manufacturer H. W. Stiegel.

Beginnings of the Modern Era

The invention of a glass-pressing machine (c.1827), used by the American manufacturer Deming Jarves in his Boston and Sandwich Glass Company (1825–88), permitted the manufacturing of inexpensive and mass-produced glass articles. Nevertheless, in the 19th and 20th cent., there has remained a sense of pride in individual craftsmanship. The American artist Louis C. Tiffany was responsible for the design and manufacture of an extraordinary iridescent glass used in a variety of objects in the late 1800s. Exceptionally fine blown glassware has been designed by such artists as René Lalique and Maurice Marinot in France, Edvard Hald and Simon Gate in Sweden, as well as Sidney Waugh in the United States.

Contemporary Applications of Glass

Glass has become invaluable in modern architecture, illumination, electrical transmission, instruments for scientific research, optical instruments, household utensils, and even fabrics. New forms of glass, new applications, and new methods of production have revolutionized the industry. Recently developed forms of glass include safety glass, which is usually constructed of two pieces of plate glass bonded together with a plastic that prevents the glass from scattering when broken; fiberglass, which is made from molten glass formed into continuous filaments and used for fabrics or for electrical insulation; and foam glass, which is made by trapping gas bubbles in glass to yield a spongy material for insulating purposes. Certain uses of glass are now being superseded by newly developed plastics.

See also window.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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