Glass Canada

Fenestration Forum: January/February 2010

Thousands of years, thousands of uses

February 23, 2010  By Brian Burton

Even though we have been manufacturing glass for thousands of years,
the full potential of modern fenestration products, according to the
experts, has not been fully exploited to date.

Even though we have been manufacturing glass for thousands of years, the full potential of modern fenestration products, according to the experts, has not been fully exploited to date.

One architect I spoke with did point out, however, that it took us 2,000 years from the time we discovered “blown” glass before we were able to manufacture glass strong enough to safely fabricate windows. However, once we had mastered the art we did not look back. The use of glass in buildings is so popular that it appears close to dominating construction.

The use of glass is increasing and innovation in fenestration products and processes is altering the way we live our lives. Glass is widely used in almost every aspect of our daily lives – in our homes, offices, cars, computers and telephones.


Glass technology and its innovations have their own language and when I visited the website for the Corning Museum of Glass it listed 817 words that were unique to the glass industry.

Glass innovations such as computerized control systems, coating techniques, solar control technology, and the integration of micro-electronic and mechanical know-how to create “smart” glass (which is able to react and respond to external forces) are constantly evolving.

I also noted while researching this article that many innovations and inventions incorporate glass components almost routinely, perhaps because it is “invisible.”

In other words, because glass is literally everywhere around us.

However, glass has managed to gradually transform agriculture, horticulture, architecture, transportation, medicine, science and even our culture.

The earliest form of glass that was discovered by mankind was that of the natural glass called obsidian. Obsidian is a natural byproduct of volcanic eruptions and it was prized by prehistoric societies the world over for its colours, sharp edges and workability. It can be fractured to produce weapons, tools and arrowheads. It can also be polished to create mirrors. Because of its scarcity it was traded around the world for centuries to, among others, the Native Americans, who prized this unique substance.

Also on the list of natural glass are fulgurite, created when lightning strikes sandy soils under the right conditions, and tektite, which is created from meteorite impacts – extraterrestrial glass!

The story I hear repeated very often as told by the Roman historian Pliny tells us that Phoenician traders noticed that a clear liquid formed when the nitrate blocks on which they placed their cooking pots melted and mixed with sand from the beach.

The tale makes for interesting reading, but I, for one, am highly skeptical that it is true.

I suspect that, as with many other inventions, it is a case of man “mimicking” nature – in this case, observing what occurs during volcanic action or lightning in direct contact with silica sand and then experimenting in an attempt to duplicate the phenomenon.  

  1. Substitute for precious stones.
  2. Glass vessels and vases, which eventually led to the invention of the glass bottle.
  3. Glass in windows and construction.
  4. Glass used for mirrors.
  5. Scientific and medical instruments which created an interest in optics during medieval times.
  6. Cameras, television, computers and many more electronic devices.
  7. Miscellaneous and unusual: To list only a few items such as glass bullets, fire grenades, glass pavements, apotropaic glass, uranium glass and neodymium glass and, my favourite, a glass slipper made for the movie Cinderella (the movie was never made). •

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