The art of scientific glass blowing (2018)

(wellcomecollection.org)

93 points | by brudgers 9 days ago

7 comments

  • jacobevelyn 8 days ago

    I had the opportunity to take a scientific glassblowing course as an undergraduate. It was one of my favorite college experiences, period. The focus and precision, combined with the fact that I was working with my hands, meant hours could fly by without me noticing. (Even when I burned myself all the time.)

    And the instructor (who had been making custom lab equipment for the university's chemistry department for around 25 years) displayed such a high level of skill in his work it was mesmerizing. Outside the lab was a display case with some of the most complex glassware he'd made in his time there. I can't find a photo online but many of the pieces were like looking at the most complicated car engine you can imagine... but all out of glass.

    For our final project we made Hero's engines[1], and had something like six weeks to do it. Whenever we had a question about any part of it, the instructor would make the entire project from scratch in maybe three minutes right in front of us, and every part of it was perfect every single time.

    Sometimes I wonder if that should've been my career.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolipile

    • agumonkey 8 days ago

      Activities that involve intense focus / physical skill (precision/dexterity, force) are probably the most beneficial to us. Blending sensory feedback loops with more abstract understanding massages your brain so nicely.

      I don't know how society will adapt to climate change but if that implies more refined craft for the average joe, I'm not worried a bit that that part will be an improvement.

      • maxerickson 8 days ago

        Here's a video of a glass one spinning:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yh5GCZw5iHE

        • js2 8 days ago

          Was this a purely hands on course? How was it graded?

          I guess I’m curios how much glass blowing knowledge is recorded in books vs how much is simply passed on directly from person to person.

          • msds 8 days ago

            Almost none of the important stuff. I own most of the books on scientific glassblowing, and they're pretty much all outdated and primarily occupied with information about apparatus design. If you're interested in calculations for distillation columns, designs for multi-stage mercury vapor diffusion pumps, and formulas for silvering glass, the books are great. Otherwise, not so much.

            The rest of the knowledge seems to be passed person-to-person, mostly in informal settings. There's a decent program at Salem community college, but it's just too short to become a fully-capable scientific glassblower. That takes about 10 years of full time apprenticeship, which is why the field is dying out.

            I've (briefly) studied with some extremely talented glassblowers (Sally Prasch, ...), and I found that helpful, but also most of the learning came from staying up to 1AM trying to replicate something that took them 5 minutes to demonstrate...

            • js2 8 days ago

              > it's just too short to become a fully-capable scientific glassblower. That takes about 10 years of full time apprenticeship, which is why the field is dying out.

              What a shame to lose collective knowledge. Is there no demand for it any more? What’s being used in labs now if not hand blown glass?

              • msds 8 days ago

                The shift away from each institution having a full-time glassblower doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of science being done in hand-blown glass. There are still lots of companies that can produce fancy glassware, and the Chinese glass industry has flourished. For 99% of science, off-the-shelf stuff is totally adequate.

                However, the capacity for repairing and modifying glassware is going away. It used to be the case that your average chemist could go walk down the hall and talk to a glassblower about designing crazy custom apparatus - not so much anymore. Even when an institution does have a glassblower, they tend to be nearing retirement age, and hiring someone who has the broad talent required is very hard...

            • dehrmann 8 days ago

              I went to Purdue and also took a scientific glass blowing course. This was 2006, and even then, it was something of a lost art.

              > Was this a purely hands on course? How was it graded?

              Almost purely hands-on. It has to be. I dabble in guitar, and like a musical instrument, no amount of reading theory will train your hands to have the dexterity and muscle memory to manipulate soft glass.

              We had about 8 projects over the semester. The instructor demoed how to make the project and things to look out for, usually stress in the glass or why you want to build something a specific way.

              We had a thin handbook that wasn't really used, and might have actually been published by a company like Corning. I think it covered some of the properties of glass.

              We got to warnings at the beginning of the semester: if you care about your GPA, take it pass/fail--there were no A's the prior semester, and you'll get a B if you put in an honest effort, you need to do good work to get an A. The second warning was someone goes to the student health center every semester, and everyone will get a minor cut or burn.

              You didn't ask, but a some surprises with glass:

              - It's surprisingly strong in the right circumstances. Drop a glass marble on a hard surface and there's a good chance it doesn't break.

              - Borosilicate is amazing; it should be the only glass in your kitchen. Its tolerance to rapid temperature chances only works in one direction--cold-hot-cold can make it shatter.

              - You can "unbreak" glass. I had a project that started to get a stress fracture as it cooled. I quickly put it back in a cool part of the torch flame to anneal it. The cracks literally healed.

              - Different glasses have different thermal expansion properties, so when you join them, you might need an intermediate glass.

              - We built everything from tubes. The way you "cut" a tube is score it a few mm with a tungsten carbide scoring knife, firmly grab in both (bare) hands, and snap it away and out. Snap it wrong and the tube shatters in your hands.

              - Glass conducts heat poorly. You usually hold the project with a bare hand while the other end is in the flame.

              - Early on, I remember being somewhat afraid of using a big flame, and struggling with part of the project. The instructor just told me to use a bigger flame. Use the right tool for the job.

              • elfakyn 8 days ago

                > You can "unbreak" glass. I had a project that started to get a stress fracture as it cooled. I quickly put it back in a cool part of the torch flame to anneal it. The cracks literally healed.

                Curious, would that still maintain a weak point in the area?

          • yumashka 8 days ago

            Photographer, painter, bouncer (!) :), glassblower. I think she is cool. :)

          • js2 8 days ago

            Sorta related, Claude Paillard making vacuum tubes by hand is fascinating if you've never seen it:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Msxwn3hmFlI

            • dekhn 8 days ago

              This is something I'd really like to do when I retire. I live near several major universities and have lots of chemistry and lab experience, and I love glass. I even bought some at home and made things (just flint glass, it's easy to work with) and was amazed how straightforward it is to build all sorts of cool apparatus. it definitely takes skill and thought to make more advanced things.

              • Steve44 8 days ago

                The Royal Institution in London has some lovely glass objects in its basement museum. Many are originals, made onsite, and as used by scientists such as Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday.

                https://www.rigb.org/visit-us/faraday-museum

                • mothsonasloth 8 days ago

                  Great article and cool posters and glass art in the workshop.

                  For the Emperor!

                  • w8vY7ER 8 days ago

                    This type of precision in glass making is so cool to see mid-process, great link!