The Early History of Glass

Naturally Occurring Glass

Historically, glass created by natural phenomena has been used by humans since earliest times. Volcanic activity where extremes of temperature and eruptions fused rocks and sand together created obsidian which early man used for its sharp edges to fashion weapons and cutting tools, as well as eye-catching items of jewellery.  The image of the right shows ancient arrowheads made with obsidian glass 

Similar use was made of fulgurites, long slender glass tubes created when lightning strikes sand in deserts or on beaches and naturally occurring glass could also be found after meteor strikes caused very high temperatures followed by rapid cooling.  Its rarity made it a valuable ancient trading commodity and it was even used as an early form of currency.

Obsidian Glass Arrowheads

 

Early Egyptian Glass Making

The First Glass Production

There are some claims the Phoenicians used glass as early as 5000 BC but it is generally accepted that the first glass production was in Mesopotamia or Egypt around 3500 BC, probably discovered accidentally as a byproduct of metal working, or during the creation of glazes for pots.  Archaeological finds indicate it was only opaque glass beads and decorations being produced but Phoenician traders introduced them to the Mediterranean coastline countries.

The First Hollow Glass Vessel Production

Hollow glass production seems to have developed around 1600 BC not only in Mesopotamia but also in Egypt, Greece, China and Northern Italy.  Using a compacted core of sand or clay, a molten rope of glass could be twined around the core and by reheating and rolling on a stone slab the rope  

 

 

strands could be fused together.  Thinner threads of molten glass could be added for decoration.  The process was costly, time-consuming and hard work but the high value of the finished products made the effort worthwhile with the rulers, the rich and the elite considering glass objects to be as valuable as jewels.  Merchants soon discovered that valuable commodities such as oils, wines and honey could be transported and preserved better in glass than in traditional wood or clay containers.

The huge upheaval caused by the collapse of many major civilizations in the late bronze age with cities destroyed and trade routes disrupted brought glass production to a near standstill until its revival, again in Mesopotamia, around 900 BC.  The earliest known written manual explaining glass-making methods was produced around 650 BC and was discovered in the vast library of the last great Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC).

 

The Invention of the Blowpipe and Glass Blowing

The invention of the blowpipe and glass blowing techniques between 30 BC and 15 AD transformed the glass industry enabling many more shapes to be produced, far more simply and cheaply than was previously possible.  Blowing into a molten core to produce a hollow shape was less time consuming that compacting a sand core and wrapping it with a rope of glass, then rolling and working the strands to fuse them together.  This advance brought glassware to the common people for the first time.

Early Egyptian Glass Blowing