Obsidian, which is black volcanic glass or molten rock that was rapidly cooled, was the first glass known to people living in the stone age and was used to craft weapons, such as arrowheads and knives, pieces that adorned people’s homes and made their everyday lives more interesting (i.e. decorative items and jewelry), and money. This makes it obvious that, unlike what many people think, glass is not a man-made material. It is, in fact, found in a plethora of forms in the natural world and is formed when sand and/or rocks are super heated for some reason (i.e. a lightning strikes beach or desert sand or meteorites that have struck the Earth millions of years ago) and are then quickly cooled, forming glassy rocks.
Glass Making in Ancient Times
The first man-made glass known today dates back to some 5,000 years ago, at around 3500BC and is believed to be a breakthrough of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, who also took it a step further and pioneered the hollow glass industry in the 16th century BC by making the first glass vases. Besides those two pacesetters, the Greeks, Assyrians, and Chinese, though, were also moving fast forward regarding the production of hollow glass.
For the next 300 years following the production of the first glass vessels by the Mesopotamians and Egyptians at around 1500BC, the glass industry was living its brightest days. However, soon after that, it declined and was revived in Mesopotamia and Egypt again in the 700BC and around 500BC respectively, turning Egypt and Mesopotamia, along with countries along the Eastern Mediterranean coast and Syria centers for glass manufacturing.
How did the Ancient Egyptians make their glass vessels? Using the core-forming technique, which was a technique where they shaped the body of the vessel around a core. Then, they would wind a ductile rope of glass around it, before they would add a rim and the handles. Once it was cool, the vessel was removed from the core.
Taking it a Step up with the Blow Pipe – The Roman Empire
Manufacturing glass was very hard in the beginning and glass makers had to use very small furnaces to melt glass, with barely enough heat to actually allow it to reach a melting point. This is why glass was considered a luxury item, given that glassmaking was a particularly slow and expensive process. As such, glass items were not easily acquired by the majority of people since only a handful could afford to have them. Revolution came at around the end of the 1st century BC by Syrian artisans, who is believed to have discovered the glass-forming technique we now call glass blowing, which speeded the production of glass with the use of the blow pipe, making glass-made items more approachable for the ordinary people. Unfortunately, the Dark Ages came to change the scenery and caused the knowledge of glassblowing to vanish from Europe, which put the weight of carrying on the glass art tradition on the shoulders of the then more civilized Middle East.
The Breakthrough – Stained And Colorless Glass (The Middle Ages & Gothic Period)
Through trade with the Middle East, the secrets of glassblowing reached Venice, Italy during the Middle Ages.In their effort to keep the technology of glass blowing a secret and maintain a glass making monopoly, the government forced the Venetian artisans to move to the Island of Murano. Whoever decided to leave the island would be sentenced to death. The exiled glass blowers managed to perfect their craft and developed not only unbelievably clear glass (cristalo) but also glass with injections of vivid colors, such as emerald, amethyst, and deep blue (stained glass).
It was then when glass was used in architecture, too. One of the oldest known examples of stained glass used in architecture (windows) in multiple pieces was found at St. Paul’s Monastery (Jarrow) that dates back to 686 AD. A more refined sample of such windows is thought to be seen in Germany and Ausburg Cathedral.
You may be rightfully wondering how the new techniques finally made it to Europe and other parts of the world. We owe our privilege to work on, produce, and admire glass made items and works of art to the many Venetian glassblowers who defied the government’s orders and escaped Murano, to pass their knowledge about glass making to others. Of course, given that stained glass was by then regarded as a Christian art form, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe in the 4th century also helped spread the art of stained glass to the corners of the Earth. This is why we also have magnificent stained glass pieces produced by Arab architects in the 8th century (see The Book of the Hidden Pearl by Persian chemist Jabir ibn Hayyan and 46 amazing ways to produce stained glass).
During the 13th and 14th century that we call the Gothic Period, stained glass windows was a distinguishing feature of cathedral designs. However, the strong and bold lines that characterized the style were replaced by (or evolved into) a form of art that was more like painting on glass at around the mid-1400s (Renaissance). Also, architecture in the 17th century, which required the use of more colorless glass (Baroque Period) so that it was in line with the latest fashion trends that demanded elaborate wall painting and particularly detailed interiors caused traditional stained glass to decline.
But, Gothic style architecture was nothing but over. It was revived in late 17th century, bringing together the old and the new. However, it was the Art Nouveau Period in the late 1800s, when prolific designers and artists such as Eugene Rousseau and Louis Comfort Tiffany worked with large glass houses, that actually allowed us to realize that a marriage between glass production and art (blown and stained glass) could indeed work out!
Embracing the New – Diamond Engraving & Leaded Glass
The 17th century was indeed a leap in the future for glass making. The glassblowing techniques were further perfected and widespread throughout Europe. It is the time when we see more glass drinking vessels, bottles, and window glass being accessible by the average citizen than ever before. The Renaissance also encouraged more creative minds to come forward and introduce new, amazing glass technology, such as diamond engraving. Lead glass was invented in 1674 by English glassmaker George Ravenscroft, which is considered a significant milestone in the glass history.
Now, if you have read the English translation of L’Arte Vetraria (The Art of Glass) by Antonio Neri, you should know that it was the first textbook on glassblowing, originally published in Italian.
The 1900s: Abstract Designs & Mechanical Technology
Abstract designs started to appear during the 20th century, represented by designers such as Leger and Matisse. Painted art that characterized the windows of the time was replaced by decorative art and brought stained glass under the spotlight again.
The first automatic bottle blowing machine was invented in the early 1900s by Michael Owen during the Industrial Revolution and could produce an astonishing 2500 pieces/hour while the world’s first safety glass was invented by Edouard Benedictus, a French scientist, in 1903. At the same time, Rudolf Seiden, an Austrian chemist, developed tempered glass and two years later, in 1905, the technique of using tree resin to “glue together” two layers of glass was invented by John Crew, which was initially used during WWI to create the lenses of gas masks and vehicle windshields/glass cookware/oven doors later on. Finally, the production of float glass is attributed to Sir Alastair Pilkington and his innovative ideas in the mid-1900s.
Back to Today
The American colonies were introduced to glass early in the 1600s during the Jamestown Settlement. They started with the production of glass bottles and windows while more decorative pieces were imported from Europe. However, it should be noted that Alexis Dixon pioneered the glass industry and was an industrial leader in Canada that not only invented a new glass manufacturing process for flat glass panels in the mid-1900s but was also the only one in the country that manufactured glass during wartime.
Besides the large glass factories, though, individual artists also begun to open their own glassblowing studios in the mid-1900s and developed new glass blowing techniques, as well as new methods to carve and cast glass, initiating the Studio Art Movement in the USA, which then spread across the globe (see the Pacific Northwest). Glass art is now much talked about (and esteemed), and there are lots of museums that praise its glory.