If there is one material above all that defines a chemistry research laboratory, it is glass. For centuries, glass has been central to science. In the early years of what we would recognise as modern science, glassware was often prepared by the scientist themselves.
Glass is the ideal material for scientific vessels because it is infinitely malleable, durable, chemically resistant, easily sterilised and crucially, transparent — so that scientists can observe the reaction process.
The art of glassblowing has facilitated many of the most important innovations in science. These include Lavoisier’s 1777 experiment to heat mercury in air, which would yield key evidence to support his oxygen theory. The experiments that led to the development of the revolutionary lithium-ion battery were carried out at Oxford Chemistry using bespoke glassware. Glassblowing played a key part in many technological innovations — from Edison’s light bulb to televisions and radios (the advancement of which depended on sealed glass tubes containing a near-vacuum to allow the passage of an electric current) and modern-day fibre optics for computer networking and communication.
To meet so many functional requirements, glass needs to be manipulated into a myriad of shapes and forms. There are three different types of glass readily employed in a research environment and these often have to be fused to other materials such as precious metal, silicon or ceramics. This, accompanied by the large expansion in higher education, enabled the profession of scientific glassblowing to come into its own in the 1960s.
For many years, scientists have depended on skilled glassblowers who can take their ideas and turn them into bespoke complex and functional laboratory equipment. They still do: although standard equipment can be made by machines, cutting-edge research needs people to design and construct the complex apparatus it requires.
Terri Adams, glassblower at the Department of Chemistry, has been making bespoke glassware at Oxford for over 26 years since training at the University of Bristol. She works with academic researchers who come to her with an idea for a new experiment, or a rudimentary design. From their (usually) rough sketches, utilising her broad scientific knowledge and manual dexterity, Terri creates intricate, precisely-sized and shaped glassware — turning constantly, blowing and manipulating the molten glass in just the right fraction of a second. It is a beautiful process to watch, and it is easy to imagine that such a skill must take many years to master, as well as patience, ingenuity and resourcefulness. Hot manipulation is the major element in the remit of a scientific glassblower but modern science also requires a degree of cold glass engineering and some knowledge of chemistry to be employed.
Bespoke glassware made by Terri Adams in the Department of Chemsitry. Image credit: Susan Davis
But scientific glassblowing is an endangered profession. According to the Heritage Crafts Association, there are fewer than 50 scientific glassblowers currently employed in the UK. Many of them are approaching retirement age, and there are fewer than ten student scientific glassblowers throughout the country. Terri says: ‘Training to the level of competence a research scientific glassblower needs can take in excess of ten years, and really the only way to learn is to work alongside someone who is already skilled. So the future of the profession is entirely dependent on taking on apprentices. But currently, there are no accredited qualifications that reflect the level of skill involved, and no educational establishments in the UK offering teaching in scientific glassblowing.'
The British Society of Scientific Glassblowers (BSSG), of which Terri is board of examiners qualifications secretary and society librarian, has tried to address the problem by establishing a comprehensive training syllabus which is respected worldwide by the industry. But the cost of training an apprentice is high; both in terms of time and money, so it is a lot to ask from employers, and many university glassblowing workshops have become smaller, often only employing one glassblower. Some industries and businesses do provide training, but employees working on an assembly line to produce a standard product will only ever perform a limited number of operations, and do not come anywhere near to acquiring the skills needed to support original scientific research.
For a number of years the BSSG has been trying to gain formal recognition for its exams and syllabus, and a number of options have been pursued, but the process of gaining government-endorsed accreditation is complex and costly. One possibility may be to develop a ‘Trailblazer apprenticeship’ endorsed as a City and Guilds qualification. The Society is also trying to establish a college base to run glassblowing courses and is hopeful that discussions with South Lanarkshire College may prove fruitful. If funding can be found and administrative hurdles overcome, Terri is optimistic that the future of this crucial and beautiful trade can be secured, enabling a new generation of glassblowers to continue supporting first-class scientific research. Glass has been vital to science in the past, as it is now and will be in the future.