SILICON – The Miracle of Advanced Technology _ PART II (The GLASS)

In my previous posts I was mentioning many times that innovation is essential for the evolution of things of all kind. The tech-development is always dependent on innovation, all we have to do first is to look around and actively observe what is going on in the surroundings. The same happened with glass. Nature already gave it to us in the forms of fulgurites (read my previous post about it). Therefore since humans discovered the extraordinary properties of glass the entire technology development had an exponential growth. It actually all started when transparent glass was firstly obtained and used to make better mirrors.

Until the development of transparent glass, mirrors were simply metal surfaces, polished to a high shine. The Romans realized that the addition of a layer of transparent glass would both protect this metal surface from scratches and corrosion while at the same time allowing them to reduce the metal surface to a thickness of a mere fraction of a millimeter. This dramatically reduced the cost of the mirror and increased effectiveness and longevity, and remains the basis for mirrors today.

The Romans’ innovation in glass technology didn’t stop there. Up until the first century AD, almost all glass was crafted into objects by being melted and poured into a mould. This worked well enough for coarse glass objects, but required enormous skill to make anything more delicate. To make a wine glass with thin walls, for instance, required a mould with a thin cavity, but it was hard to get the thick, gloopy molten glass to flow into it. The Romans noticed, though, that solid glass could behave like a plastic if it was hot enough. Using metal pincers they could pull it into all sorts of shapes before it cooled down too much. They could even blow air into it while it was red hot, and when it cooled they would have a perfect solid bubble. By developing this technique of glass blowing, they were able to blow into existence thin-walled wine glasses, with a delicacy and sophistication that the world had never seen before. Until this time, drinking vessels had been opaque, made of metal, horn or ceramic. The appreciation of wine was based solely on the way that it tasted. The invention of drinking glasses meant that the colour, transparency and clarity of their wine became important, too. We are used to seeing what we drink, but this was new to the Romans, and they loved it.

Although Roman wine glasses were the height of technical and cultural sophistication in their time, compared to modern glasses they were crude. Their main problem was that they were full of bubbles. This was not just an aesthetic problem. It seriously weakened the glass. Whenever a material experiences mechanical stress, which might be caused by anything from being dropped against another glass to being dropped accidentally on the floor, it absorbs the force by dispersing it from atom to atom, reducing the total force that each individual atom has to absorb. Any atom that can’t withstand the force being inflicted on it will be ripped from its position in the material, causing a crack. Wherever there is a bubble or crack, the atoms have fewer neighbouring atoms to hold them in place and with which to share the force, and so these atoms are more prone to being ripped from position. When a glass smashes, it is because the force is so great that a chain reaction occurs within the material, with the failure of each atom causing the failure of its neighbour. The bigger the force, the smaller the bubble or crack needed to initiate this chain reaction. Or to put it another way, large bubbles in your wine glass mean it won’t be able to withstand much impact.

The extreme fragility of glass might explain why glass making took so long to catch on after the Romans, despite their having made so much progress. The Chinese knew how to make glass,  and even traded Roman glass, but they didn’t develop it themselves. This is extremely surprising given that the Chinese mastery over materials technologies outshone that of the West for a thousand years after the Roman Empire collapsed. The Chinese were experts in paper, wood, ceramic and metals, but they pretty much ignored glass.

By contrast, in the West, the fashion for wine glasse nurtured a respect and appreciation for glass that ultimately had a profound cultural impact. In Europe, and especially the colder Northern Europe, transparent waterproof glass windowpanes, which let the light in but kept the elements out, were too desiable a technology to ignore. At first, though, only tiny panes of glass could be made that were of sufficient purity and consistency not to shatter, but these could be knitted together to make larger windows using lead. They could even be coloured  with glazes. Coloured or stained glass windows became a means of expressing wealth and sophistication, changing entirely the architecture of the European cathedral. Over time the artisans making stained glass for cathedrals became as high status as the masons who cut the stone, and in Europe the new art of glazing blossomed.

The disdain for glass in the East lasted all the way until the 19th century. Before then, the Japanese and Chinese relied on paper for the windows of their buildings, a material that worked perfectly well but resulted in a different kind of architecture. But the lack of glass technology in the East meant that, despite their technical sophistication, they never invented the telescope nor the microscope, and so had no access to either until Western missionaries introduced them. Whether it was the lack of these two crucial optical instruments that prevented the Chinese from capitalizing on their technological superiority and instigating a scientific revolution, as happened in the West in the seventeenth century, is impossible to say. What is certain, though, is that without a telescope you can’t see that Jupiter has moons, or that Pluto exists, or make the astronomical measurements that underpin our modern understanding of the universe. Similarly without the microscope, it is impossible to see cells such as bacteria and to study systematically the microscopic world, which was essential to the development of medicine and engineering.

TO BE CONTINUED… (See the Part III of The Silicon Story in the next post)

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