All About Glass

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The History of Science and Technology in the Rakow Library

All About Glass

The scientific resources housed in the Rakow Library chronicle the mutual history of glass and science. They reveal how glass was both a subject and a tool of scientific study. They also highlight the different channels of scientific communication, beginning with the Medieval manuscript of the Mappae Clavicula and moving forward through the four centuries that followed the print revolution in the second half of the 15th century.

The latter had an immense impact on scientific communication. Printing launched new possibilities for inquiry and discovery within a community seeking to establish an order of reason and fact in place of superstition and myth. Scientists used shorter forms of writing—personal correspondence, treatises, and journal articles—to disseminate and exchange new ideas as rapidly as possible across continents and eventually hemispheres. Then, as now, time was of the essence in scientific communication. A text of particular import was often hand delivered to a far-away colleague by private courier on horseback. When the Accademia del Cimento published its collection of essays representing ten years of experimentation, it was the society’s secretary, Lorenzo Magalotti, who traveled from Florence to London in order to personally present the Saggi di naturali esperienze to the recently founded but already influential Royal Society. As in the case of the Saggi, the longer book format typically summed up a major body of work assembled over the course of many years. One notable example is Isaac Newton’s book, Opticks, which he published only after decades of experimentation and assiduous record-keeping.

Many historical sources in the Rakow’s collection show how science and technology tended to commingle. Scientists who studied the properties of glass were not unlike the master glassmakers whose livelihood depended upon understanding the capabilities of their material. As well, glass technology shares with science a historical evolution from intuitive suppositions to empirically based knowledge. In the era of experimental science, the scientist and the glassmaker were each wholly engaged in the investigative process, repeating procedures in order to produce predictable and, for the glassmaker especially, bankable outcomes. L’Arte Vetraria, Antonio Neri’s classic work on glassmaking, embodied the empirical ideal in glassmaking. The several “Neri” editions and translations held by the Rakow attest to the widespread use of this text, which would remain for more than two centuries the handbook for glassmakers throughout Europe and in England.

Other sources demonstrate the tremendous importance of glass instruments in science. Glass instruments brought new accuracy to science. They enabled discovery and gave researchers the ability to provide demonstrable proof to support their theories. In chemistry, glass vessels gradually replaced metal and ceramic ones. The transparency of glass permitted observation of the experimental process. Researchers could now see liquids rise and fall in their glass tubes; they could record both qualitative and quantitative changes in precise measures. But most significantly, transparency helped to give experimental science the reliability and accountability necessary to establish its legitimacy.

In these same early years of the modern historical period, one instrument in particular became a catalyst for literally changing our world view. This was the glass lens. With it, humanity could extend its reach to the microscopically small as well as the infinitely distant, beyond what the human eye alone could access. The evolving technology of the lens, and the knowledge to which it led, helped to define the modern period and overturn the orthodoxies that prevailed within the scientific community as well as those which were dictated from without. It was the telescope lens, for example, which enabled Copernicus and Galileo to assert that our planet was not the center of the galaxy. The more earthbound Darwinian revolution came some two hundred years later. In the explosion of learning that followed, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka made glass models of plant and marine life for universities and museums. The detail and clarity which characterize their drawings are qualities that were certainly inspired, if not made directly possible, by the quintessential instrument of their time - the microscope.

The story of science and technology is also the story of human inventiveness, discovery, experimentation, and proving. Whereas glass has figured prominently throughout this history, its importance tends to recede into the background of our awareness. We would therefore do well to return glass to its proper place in the foreground of scientific thinking and to appreciate its influence in the making of a modern world.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Published on June 24, 2013