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Glass history on display

History in glass


June 4, 2015
By Brian Burton

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Last fall I had the opportunity to visit the Corning Museum of Glass, which is close to the Canadian border in upper New York State south of Syracuse. I would estimate it’s about a 90-minute drive from the border and well worth your time and effort.

The iconic museum, created in 1951 by Corning Glass as a gift to the United States to mark the 100th anniversary of Corning, is dedicated to relating the history of glass, glassmaking and disseminating information about scientific glass research. It has grown over the years to become a world-class venue attracting thousands of visitors each year, providing daily guided tours, interactive workshops and more. Even on the weekday I visited, there were hundreds of visitors.

A visitor leaves with a profound understanding of the versatility, complexity and usefulness of glass in our world. I can’t really imagine another single material that would be able to command such focused attention and the engaging story it weaves that encompasses thousands of years and hundreds of countries. The one-of-a-kind museum venue is very large and I was happy I brought my camera, laptop and notebook.

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The highlights for me were the featured exhibits on the Crystal Palace and the windows in the Space Orbiter. You will also be impressed with the Window, Vessel and Optical galleries. Each gallery has its own separate room providing a well-organized series of exhibits, photographs and illustrations.

The Window gallery comprises a very interesting component of the museum with a section on technical improvements and a museum scientist present to answer questions and explain technical details. He explained the use of more and larger windows by builders in the ‘60s and ‘70s that ran into a roadblock in 1973 when the energy crisis hit. At that time, the fact that windows provided relatively little thermal insulation became a pressing concern. A chemist by the name of Roy Gordon already knew that a tin oxide coating could make windows more energy-efficient. His challenge was to somehow make the coating transparent. Gordon tried a two-phase chemical vapour deposition process which involved combined gases above a hot glass sheet. The gases reacted and deposited solid layers that formed a non-reflective coating of tin oxide on the surface. Eventually manufacturers invested in more intensive research and within a decade they succeeded in automating the process. Today we see energy-saving windows everywhere around us.

The museum’s Optical gallery describes some of the remarkable ways that glass reacts and responds to light, featuring exhibits about the role glass played in optics including telescopes, periscopes, scientific instruments, lighthouses, modern fiber optics and computers.

I was impressed with the extensive museum exhibit on the Crystal Palace, which was moved from its original site in London’s Hyde Park and then destroyed by fire. This structure made the general public aware of the tremendous potential of glass in architecture for the first time in the 1850s. The statistics of the Crystal Palace were astonishing. It required 3,300 iron columns and 293,635 panes of glass. The elegant completed structure, built in less than six months, was five times larger than the Palace of Versailles and taller than Westminster Abbey. The reason for its lasting architectural significance is that the building was the first example of prefabricated architecture, a concept well suited to glass and cast iron.

The information and exhibit on the U.S. Space Orbiter was very interesting and is apparently very popular with visitors for good reason. The space shuttles have 37 optical-quality triple-paned windows of various sizes that were manufactured specifically for each spacecraft. The windows were designed to withstand intense re-entry temperatures, atmospheric pressure and the pressures created by the vacuum of space.


Brian is now involved with an innovative multidisciplinary firm that specializes in technical business writing: Award Bid Management Services http://award-bid-management-services.com/. The firm assists companies interested in selling goods and services to governments and institutions. He can be reached at Burton@award-bid-management.com


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