About the SA Blog Network



The art of science and the science of art.
Symbiartic HomeAboutContact

We Blew a Bubble for a Man Named Edison

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

When you think of chemistry, no doubt images of scientists in white lab coats swirling beakers and test tubes come to mind. Ever wonder where those beakers and test tubes originated? If your answer is a big science catalog like Fisher Scientific or Chemglass or the like, you’re probably right… some percentage of the time. The rest of the time chemists, and increasingly scientists in other disciplines like physics, engineering, geology etc. employ the skills of scientific glass blowers to make custom designed glassware to fit any specifications they can dream up.

1937 advertisement for Corning's Pyrex

A 1937 advertisement in National Geographic points out that Corning's star product, borosilicate glass (aka Pyrex) was critical to the invention of the lightbulb.

Scientific glass blowers?! How retro does that sound?! My grandfather was a chemist and professor at Wesleyan University and I recall him saying that he learned to work glass so he could manipulate his own equipment. Evidently, back then it was common for there to be large glass shops associated with major chemistry departments. Not only were they employed to provide basic glassware for experiments, but they were constantly called on to repair equipment as well. According to Michael Souza, Princeton University’s resident scientific glass blower, the first supercomputer, ENIAC, was inoperable 50% of the time because each day several of its 17,000+ vacuum tubes would fail. This type of daily load kept glass shops buzzing so chemistry grad students were wise to learn glassblowing to manage their own needs. Hence my grandfather’s glassblowing skill.

Since that time, glass shops have shrunk considerably as chemists’ needs have changed and technology pushes much of the old equipment into obsolescence. But a quick scan of some of the top schools’ chemistry departments reveals that scientific glass blowers are alive and well. The fact is, mass production works for many items in a chem lab, but for cutting edge experiments, you need cutting edge equipment. Scientific glass blowers continue to provide experimental chemists with the expertise and skill to create just about anything from glass.

Kiva Ford

Scientific glassblowers like Kiva Ford provide custom glassware for chemists and other research scientists. Image by Alex Rappoport.

Furthermore, a select few have learned to work with notoriously finicky varieties of glass. Princeton’s Souza has made a name for himself in being one of the few glassblowers capable of manipulating the notoriously finicky aluminosilicate glass. This is the only type of glass that can withstand helium permeation and hot alkali vapors such as cesium, potassium, and rubidium. (It’s also evidently the glass used on your iPhone4 screen if the Internets are telling me the truth.) In one collaboration Souza describes, he must blow a ¾” area of aluminosilicate glass to a thickness of less than 120 microns with an error of no more than 10 microns in either direction (for reference, a human hair is between 90 and 150 microns). The cells must withstand 300 psi for 30 minutes, and close to half of the cells fail under the pressure. As many as 30 cells are needed to perform one experiment. I don’t know about you, but I cry, “Mercy!”

Science is by nature collaborative, but it’s not only a collaboration between scientists, as you might think. Scientific illustrators, fossil preparators, laboratory technicians and scientific glass blowers work very closely with scientists behind the scenes to push the boundaries of technology and make research run smoothly. They bring manual dexterity, intricate knowledge of methods and materials, ingenuity and artistry to the table. Without this additional type of collaboration, research would grind to a halt.

Tooth in a Jar, handblown glass from Kiva Ford's Anatomy Series

Despite this level of technical skill, Souza doesn’t consider himself an artist. Instead he likens himself to an instrument maker who can make and tune a guitar, but lacks the ability to play music. However, his and his colleagues' creations are undoubtedly artistic. Indeed, many scientific glass blowers cross the line into glass art as well. Here, Kiva Ford uses his technical skill to create anatomically-themed miniature bell jars. Image courtesy of Kiva Ford.


Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 2 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. bonderman 4:40 pm 08/3/2011

    ENIAC’s vacuum tubes were actually off-the-shelf commercial tubes of the era using machine blown glass envelopes rather than hand blown glass by humans.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 1:16 am 08/9/2011

    Why are there no steampunk novels written about scientific glass blowers? This is like, a whole new class of cosplay and career at the very least.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article