Glassblowing is a glass forming technique which was invented by the Phoenicians at approximately 50 B.C. somewhere along the Syro-Palestinian coast. The earliest evidence of glassblowing comes from a collection of waste from a glass workshop, including fragments of glass tubes, glass rods and tiny blown bottles, which was dumped in a mikvah, a ritual bath in the Jewish Quarter of Old City of Jerusalem dated from 37 to 4 B.C.
Some of the glass tubes recovered are fire-closed at one end and are partially inflated by blowing through the open end while still hot to form small bottle, thus they are considered as a rudimentary form of blowpipe. Hence, tube blowing not only represents the initial attempts of experimentation by glassworkers at blowing glass, it is also a revolutionary step the induced a change in conception and a deep understanding of glass. Such invention swiftly eclipsed all other traditional methods, such as casting and core-forming, in working glass.
In the Roman Empire
The invention of glassblowing was coincided with the establishment of the Roman Empire in the first century B.C. which served to provide impetus to its spread and dominance. Glassblowing was greatly encouraged under the Roman rule, although Roman citizens could not be “in trade”, in particular under the reign of Augustus, therefore glass was being blown in many areas of the Roman world. On the eastern borders of the Empire, the first glass workshops were set up by the Phoenicians in the birthplace of glassblowing in contemporary
Syria, Israel, and Palestine, as well as in the neighbouring province of Cyprus. Ennion for example, was among one of the most prominent glassworkers from Syria of the time. He was renowned for producing the multi-paneled mould-blown glass vessels that were complex in their shapes, arrangement and decorative motifs. The complexity of designs of these mould-blown glass vessels illustrated that the sophistication of the glassworkers in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire. Mould-blown glass vessels manufactured by the workshops of Ennion and other contemporary glassworkers such as Jason, Nikon, Aristeas and Meges, constitutes some of the earliest evidence of glassblowing found in the eastern territories.
Meanwhile, the glassblowing technique reached Egypt and was described in a fragmentary poem printed on the papyrus which was dated to third century A.D. Besides, the Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean areas resulted in the substitution of Hellenistic casting, core-forming and mosaic fusion techniques by blowing. The earliest evidence of blowing in Hellenistic consists of small blown bottles for perfume and oil retrieved from the glass workshops on the Greek island of Samothrace and at Corinth in mainland Greece which were dated to first century A.D.
On the other hand, the Phoenician glassworkers exploited their glassblowing techniques and set up their workshops in the western territories of the Roman Empire first in Italy by the middle of the first century A.D. Rome, the heartland of the Empire, soon became a major glassblowing centre and more glassblowing workshops were subsequently established in other provinces of Italy,
for example Campania, Morgantina and Aquileia. A great variety of blown glass objects, ranging from unguentaria (toiletry container for perfume) to cameo, from tableware to window glass, were produced. From there, escaping craftsmen forbidden to travel otherwise advanced to the rest of Europe by building their glassblowing workshops in the north of the Alps which is now Switzerland and then at sites in northern Europe in present-day France and Belgium.
Surviving evidence, such as blowpipes and moulds which are indicative of the presence of blowing, was fragmentary and limited. Fragments of clay blowpipes were retrieved from the late first century A.D. glass workshop at Avenches in Switzerland. Clay blowpipes, also known as mouthblowers, were made by the ancient glassworkers due to the accessibility and availability of the resources before the introduction of the metal blowpipes. Hollow iron rods, together with blown vessel fragments and glass waste dating to approximately fourth century A.D, were recovered from the glass workshop in Merida of Spain, as well as in Salona in Croatia.
Meanwhile, one of the most prolific glassblowing centres of the Roman period was established in Cologne on the river Rhine in Germany by late first century B.C. Stone base mould and terracotta base mould were discovered from these Rhineland workshops suggesting the adoption and the application of mould-blowing technique by the glassworkers.
Besides, blown flagons and blown jars decorated with ribbing, as well as blown perfume bottles with letters CCAA or CCA which stand for Colonia Claudia Agrippiniensis, were produced from the Rhineland workshops. Remains of blown blue-green glass vessels, for example bottles with a handle, collared bowls and indented beakers, were found in abundance from the local glass workshops at Poetovio and Celeia in Slovenia.
The glass blowing tradition was carried on in Europe from the medieval period through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance in the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. During the early medieval period, the Franks manipulated the technique of glassblowing by creating the simple corrugated moulds and developing the claws decoration techniques.
Blown glass objects, such as the drinking vessels that imitated the shape of the animal horn were produced in the Rhine and Meuse valleys, as well as in Belgium. On the other hand, the Renaissance Europe witnessed the revitalization of glass industry in Italy. Glassblowing, in particular the mould-blowing technique, was employed by the Venetian glassworkers from
Murano to produce the fine glassware which is also known as cristallo. The technique of glassblowing, coupled with the cylinder and crown methods, was used to manufacture sheet or flat glass for window panes in the late seventeenth century. The applicability of glassblowing was so widespread that glass was being blown in many parts of the world, for example, in China, Japan and the Islamic Lands.
The Byzantine glassworkers made mould-blown glass decorated with Jewish and Christian symbols in Jerusalem between late sixth century and the middle of the seventh century A.D. Mould-blown vessels with facets, relief and linear-cut decoration were discovered at Samarra in the Islamic Lands.
The “studio glass movement” began in 1962 when Harvey Littleton, a ceramics professor, and Dominick Labino, a chemist and engineer, held two workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art, during which they started experimenting with melting glass in a small furnace and creating blown glass art. Thus Littleton and Labino are credited with being the first to make molten glass available to artists working in private studios.
This approach to glassblowing blossomed into a worldwide movement, producing such flamboyant and prolific artists as Dale Chihuly, Dante Marioni, Fritz Driesbach and Marvin Lipofsky as well as scores of other modern glass artists. Today there are many different institutions around the world that offer glassmaking resources.
The History of Glass Blowing in Science
Glass has been at the centre of the science for centuries and has facilitated several major discoveries.
The experiments carried out at Oxford University that led to the development of the lithium-ion battery used bespoke laboratory glassware. Lavoisier’s experiments with mercury which led to his Oxygen theory also used custom made glassware.
Glassblowing also played key roles in many modern-day inventions such as the lightbulb, television, the radio and fibre optics which are used in computer networking.
A Dying Industry
For an industry that has been at the heart of so many of man’s developments over the years, it’s incredible to think that the skills are slowly being lost. Although many of the basic scientific items such as beakers and test tubes can now be mass-produced on machines, the more complex and bespoke pieces need to be created by highly skilled glassblowers. The Heritage Crafts Association estimates that fewer than 50 glassblowers now exist in the UK. Many of these are nearing retirement age. They also believe that there are less than ten students learning the trade across the country.
The industry faces several issues if it is to survive. Currently, the only way to learn the skill is as an apprentice. It can take up to 10 years to train so that the individual can competently create the complex pieces of scientific glassware required. Presently, no establishments teach glassblowing, and there are no recognised qualifications.
The Future of Glass Blowing
Decorative glass blowing, although niche, is still a thriving industry in the UK. The issues are centred around scientific glass blowing and getting more young people into the field. The British Society of Scientific Glassblowers is trying to create a formal learning framework.
Glass blowing is a method of manipulating glass. It is used for creating both scientific equipment and decorative glassware. The history of glass blowing can be traced back over 2000 years to the 1st century BC. Syrian craftsman began using very basic glass blowing techniques somewhere along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. As the Roman Empire started to exert its control over the region glass blowing methods developed and spread across the area.
The Phoenicians created the first dedicated glass blowing workshops in modern-day Lebanon, Cyprus, Isreal and Palestine. By the 1st century, AD glass blowing had also reached Eygpt.
By the middle ages, glass blowing had spread across the majority of the Middle East and Europe and techniques had moved on considerably. Venice and the island of Murano were considered to be the centre of glass blowing. Venitian glassmakers produced Cristallo a very fine and clear form of glassware created using a mould-blowing technique.
The industry remained largely unchanged for several hundred years as the existing manual techniques were refined. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution in 1820 that a process for mechanically pressing hot glass was patented. Years of fast innovation then followed with many new automated techniques introduced. These changes took glass blowing from a cottage industry to the world of big industry.
The modern art of glass blowing may use modernized equipment, but the essence of working with glass remains an ancient art. Molding red-hot liquid glass to create a lasting glass artifact is an act that requires a creative mind, dexterous hand work, and stamina. It is very physically draining work.
Throughout history, the basic knowledge and techniques of glass blowing have been highly coveted, and at times, held sacred by only a select few. This information was handed down secretively from glass blower to apprentice for thousands of years.
Throughout history, glass blowers were literally held hostage for fear of their knowledge being leaked. During the 1st Century A.D., Phoenician glassworkers were forbidden from traveling, although those who escaped spread the art form into present day Switzerland, France, and Belgium. Similarly, for Venetian glassblowers, leaving the island of Murano was a crime, punishable by death.
Glass can occur naturally; causes include volcanic eruptions, lightening strikes, and meteorite impacts, during which certain rocks melt at high temperature, then cool quickly and solidify. Such natural glass includes obsidian, from volcanic origin, and obsidianite, from extraterrestrial origin.