Glass: The Earliest Materials Engineering

Today, materials engineers are exploring sophisticated polymers, alloys, and nanomaterials, but don’t be fooled. Materials engineering is an ancient discipline. Since the earliest humans in the Stone Age found the first shards of obsidian (volcanic glass), the material has been useful and fascinating to us, and we have sought methods to make it ourselves. In the beginning, humans developed specific techniques to heat and cool sand to make glass. These techniques were the genesis of modern glass manufacturing, thought to occur in ancient Egypt, Syria, or Mesopotamia. For the next 3600 years, humans have found near infinite uses for the strange material. Today, glass is everywhere; it is in our kitchens, on the screens of every device, in our homes and cars, and are used for decoration.

At its simplest, glass is melted sand, made mostly of silicone dioxide (SiO2). When sand cools after melting (at the frighteningly high temperature of 1700℃ (3090℉), it doesn’t go back to sand. Instead it cools into a liquid-like solid called an amorphous solid. The result is a smooth, chemically inert material that can be easily melted again to shape it. While usually transparent, with the addition of different oxides to the melted sand, glass takes on the range of colors we see today.

While glass proved incredible useful for ancient civilizations for storage, some of the earliest glass objects made were beads, objects with no practical purpose designed purely for adornment. Jewellery in general can function as works of art, objects of worship, and symbols of status. The emergence of glass as a technology was a huge step forward in the artistic, cultural, and scientific development of mankind.

Red, white, and brown necklace, made from ancient Ethiopian glass beads.
Ancient beads from Ethiopa 1st Century BC. CC Image by A. Davey on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Glass does not just form wearable art, but fine art as well. Artists like Allison Kinaird use glass engraving techniques to make striking works of art. Her work Maze, on display at National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, features a figure falling through various glass-engraved mazes enhanced by sophisticated LED lighting. The maze forms evoke the image of the brain, perhaps symbolizing the universal human struggle through consciousness and emotion. This is an artwork that toes the lines between engineering, biology, and pure artistic expression.

Artwork made from glass engravings in brain-like forms, featuring male figures and colored lights.
Maze by Allison Kinaird

Glass is arguably the first true instance in human history of materials engineering. Though natural glass exists, it is not commonly found worldwide, so manmade glass is far more ubiquitous in use. Glass is an overwhelmingly human material whose legacy stretches across history, cultures, and disciplines. It is both a scientific marvel and among the most beautiful of synthetic materials.

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