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May 6, 2003

A public radio commentary

Today we marvel at how high tech gadgets change our lives, yet right under our noses is an innovation that truly changed our world, yet is so mundane we rarely even see it: It's glass. Of all technological achievements glass changed our world the most.

In the Western world, it first appeared in the 13th century, but its high cost allowed glass to transform, at first, only public buildings.

How spectacular it must have been for a 13th century parishioner to enter a church and see for the first time a sanctuary lit brilliantly by light filtering through stained glass windows. Glass gave churches even more magnificence than the carvings and gold that filled windowless baroque churches. As the price of glass dropped it spread from churches to homes.

Imagine how it changed life for a homeowner in the 16th century. Before glass, windows were sealed with wood shutters or oil cloth and muslin. They isolated the homeowner from the world, the glass windows allowed the sun in, even on a rainy or cold day.

So precious at first to the homeowner was the glass that before leaving home the panes were removed and placed in a safe place. Soon glass begin changing in more profound ways how we viewed the world. Lens for spectalces first appeared as bifocals. Some scholars credit this innovation with an increase in learning because of additional years of eyesite for reading.

Then glass revolutionized further our view of the external world by extending our field of vision. At the turn of the 17th century the telescope and the microscope appeared - devices loaded, of course, with glass optics. They extended our view from the vanishing point to the edge of the cosmos.

Next glass brought about the modern world we live in. Our lives today are revolutionized by materials: We are surrounded by plastics, polymers, composites and all sorts of chemicals. Glass made this possible: without it chemical reactions could not be studied and analyzed. Glass is an ideal container: it's resistant to most chemicals, neutral in any experiment, yet lets a chemist observe transformations - a combination no wood, metal or clay container can rival.

From this glass made possible other life changing inventions: the barometer, the thermometer, the electric light, and the first electronic devices, filled, of course, with glass vacuum tubes.

So ends my ode to glass: It keeps us isolated from the elements, but lets the sun in; it's given us sharper eyesight, and allows us to take a visual journey from an amoeba to the stars - and let us recombine the chemical elements in a billion different ways. Now isn't that more marvelous than the latest electronic gizmo?

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises