666: Glass by McFarlane and Martin

by Gerard


666.1: McFarlane, Alan and Gerry Martin. Glass: A World History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 203 pp. ISBN 0-226-50028-4.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 600: Technology
  • 660: Chemical engineering and related technologies
  • 666: Ceramic and allied technologies
  • 666.1: Glass

If you really think about it, without the invention of glass, civilization would be stuck in a technological rut. There would be no magnifying glass, no telescope, no spectacles, or no mirrors. We have no glass apparatus to conduct experiments nor any way to comfortably view the environment outside a building. Glass invades nearly every aspect of our lives. Even now, I am looking through a pair of corrective lenses at an image on a computer screen (two panes of glass). Alan McFarlane’s and Gerry Martin’s Glass is a historical and philosophical look at how the invention of glass shaped human history and how glass helped us view the world.

The authors break up glass inventions into five loose categories: mirrors, panes, prisms, beads, and vessels. Each of these types of glass works are traced through history and they even incorporate many, many examples of non-Western glass technologies. This is where a lot of scientific histories fail. Rather than confine the history of scientific experimentation to a linear progression from the Greeks to the Dark Ages to the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, McFarlane and Martin attempt to piece together the fragmented history from around the world. Their exploration leads to interesting questions about the nature of science, invention, and philosophy. To talk about glass, you must first discuss the science of glass, and then the science of science.

The authors’ attempt to leave no stone unturned is refreshing and that makes this “object biography” better than some others I’ve read before. The writing moves along at a steady clip and they don’t get too bogged down in any one particular area. If you’re a science history person, than this one would make a great addition to your library. The nuance given here to the history of glass and the nature of human curiosity is stunning. A quick but illuminating read.