Why is Glass Transparent? It makes no sense at all

The roots of glassmaking go way back to when our ancestors were wandering the Mesopotamian deserts around 3000 years BC.  It has travelled an amazing journey from there. It grew into a flourishing industry and moved from country to country, and the skills and techniques that came with it ebbed and flowed as kingdoms came and went. You've probably seen the lovely delicate glass of the Romans in the British museum – often iridescent because of its reaction to the soil in which it has been buried - or heard of Murano in Italy and some of the intrigues that surround the place.

There's a kind of alchemy to it all.  Who'd have thought that you could mix sand, lime and soda and various other bits and bobs and melt them together into something transparent?  It makes no kind of sense really. In terms of it's atomic structure, Glass is actually a liquid, not a solid, and some people say that you can see it flow over time, though this is actually not true – you would need millions of years to see any change.

No-one knows who thought of mixing together sand, lime, soda and heat to make a clear substance.  They think that it was possibly a Mesopotamian potter who wanted to create glaze for some pots, but there are lovely myths about shepherds heating cooking pots on slabs of soda in a bed of sand and hey presto!

As a home grown industry, Glass first came to the UK with stained glass in Mediaeval times, and eventually it became about bottles, and then it flourished into the cut glass industry – a process that could capture the magic of light and liquid and wrap it up into a form that you could put on your mantelpiece or table to impress all your friends.

Many 20th Century glass artists take a different approach, however.  They represent a movement that saw glass as a medium for artistic expression – it came out of the factory and into the studio.  The designer and the maker came together, the artist often making the work themselves, or with a space team of experts. These are the roots of today's glass artists.  They use techniques that go back to the ancient past, but they reinvent and reimagine them for the today and for the future.

From a talk given at Blackwell, The Arts and Crafts House, Cumbria to coincide with 'New Glass - Ancient Technique, Contemporary Artform' Jan 31 - May 12 2013


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