Cart Pulling Plate Glass to the Natural History Building, c. 1910, by Leet Brothers. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 532, Image no. SIA2009-1788.

The World Is Yours: Glass

Take a listen to clips from the episode of The World Is Yours titled Glass.

Sometimes, the title of a The World Is Yours episode is so ordinary, that it immediately makes me curious as to what type of dramatization could be included. That’s what happened with the episode titled “Glass,” which originally aired on August 22, 1937. To add to the suspense, the narrator starts the program by stating we will hear “the dramatic story of one of the most powerful factors in the drama of human existence.” I know that glass is important and useful, but one of the most powerful factors in human existence? I had to hear more.  

American Art Glass Exhibit, United States National Museum

The episode begins with two people looking at the glass exhibit at the United States National Museum and remarking on all of the different colors and shapes of the objects. Then Old Timer regales the visitors with his favorite legend about how glass was discovered before providing the pair with an explanation of how glass is made.

Listen to Old Timer's breakdown.

[Carl] Just what would you say is a simple explanation for the making of all glass, Old Timer?

 [Old Timer] Well, glass is just silica, that’s uh sand, fused with active minerals to produce whatever variety of glass is wanted. For instance, to make window glass, they mix soda and lyme with the sand and melt it down and there’s the window glass.

[Woman] Just like that. (laughs) And if they want glass for bottles, I suppose, then they mix something else with the sand.

[Old Timer] Right. Oxide of iron to be exact. Another thing, the reason that glass is so cheap is because of the abundance of silica. Next to oxygen, silica is the most plentiful of all elements.

The episode continues with a discussion about the dominance of Venetian glass makers and a brief history of Murano, Italy. Old Timer then goes on to talk about how plate glass was initially made in the seventeenth century, and how the methods used then are similar to today. The next dramatizations feature a soldier returning to ask for his mistress’ hand in marriage with a mirror, considered a priceless possession, and the joy of a lord and lady who were having glass windows installed in their castle. Old Timer’s conversation with the visitors then turns to the evolution of the uses of optical glass.

Listen to Old Timer's explanation.

[Old Timer] Just think, now there’s enough window glass made every year to pave a boulevard around the Earth at the equator, eight lanes wide.

[Woman] Oh my.

[Old Timer] And bottles? Why a glass factory can turn out a million of those in a day.

[Woman] Say, tell me. When was it that man discovered glass could be used to aide his eyesight?

[Old Timer] Well, optical glass was first made sometime during the fourteenth century. First they used the glass as we use our magnifying glass now. After a while, someone thought of putting braces on the lenses and fitting them on to the face. Those were the first spectacles.

[Carl] You know, I read something in the magazine the other day that men of those times used to wear spectacles just to make them appear more dignified and they fitted them according to the age of the person desiring them.

[Woman] (laughs) That’s a quaint custom.

[Old Timer] Well, the next logical step after the magnifying glass and the spectacle was the microscope. That also came in to existance sometime during the fourteeth century. Then in the seventeeth century came the telescope.

[Woman] The seventeeth century? Why, I’ve heard that the telescope was invented as far back as, uh, oh as 1295 or something like that. By a man named Roger Bacon of England, I think.

[Old Timer] Oh, there are lots of men who claim credit for its discovery. Galileo and a number of others. But Hans Lippershey seems to be the one who discovered it.

[Woman] He sounds like a German.

[Old Timer] No, he was a Dutch optitian who lived in Middleburg.

Assorted Telescopes and Viewing Apparatus

What follows is a dramatization of Lippershey’s discovery of the telescope after a customer asked for one convex and one concave lens. After creating the lenses, Lippershey held them up in a line and realized that it made objects appear closer. The show ends with a discussion about different colors of glass and the possible uses that have yet to be discovered. The last dramatization is a step forward in time to 2037 and what life might be like then.

Listen here to jump in time to the "future" in 2037.

[OId Timer] People will always disbelieve. Why, people scoffed at Marconi when he mentioned there might be such a thing as radio. And at Edison when he thought of incandescent lamps. But they lived to enjoy those things. I can imagine what our descendants in the year 2037 will be saying about us…

[Mary] Uncle Arthur, oh Uncle Arthur?

[Uncle Arthur] Yes?

[Mary] Look! What is this strange black piece of square stone?

[Uncle Arthur] That’s asphalt, Mary.     

[Mary] Asphalt? What’s it used for?

[Uncle Arthur] Our ancestors used it to pave roads.

[Mary] (laughing) Ah, funny. Didn’t they know enough to pave their roads with glass?

[Uncle Arthur] They didn’t know glass could be used for that I suppose.

[Mary] And look, look in this case. What are these rounds pieces of glass? They have wires attached to them.

[Uncle Arthur] Oh, those are spectacles, Mary. People wore those as to see better back in 1937.

[Mary] Do you mean they balanced those things on their noses?

[Uncle Arthur] Yes.

[Mary] Well, didn’t they know about our kind of glasses? The one that fits right into the eyelid?

[Uncle Arthur] Oh, yes they did. But they were just about coming in back there in 1937. You see, Mary, our kind of glass is very difficult to make.

[Mary] Oh.

[Uncle Arthur] It takes lots of skill to fit a piece of glass to a person’s eyeball. It’s delicate work that our ancestors were slow in learning. Oh, but look Mary, here’s something else very interesting. All metal pipe for water lines.

[Mary] All metal?

[Uncle Arthur] Yes.

[Mary] But didn’t our ancestors know that the inside of water pipes rust?

[Uncle Arthur] Certainly. But they didn’t know how to line their pipes with glass until about 1937.

[Mary] Gosh, the drinking water must have tasted awful bad running through all that rust on the inside of those pipes.

[Uncle Arthur] Oh, here’s something else. A strange kind of cloth. Cotton they call it.

[Mary] Cotton.

[Uncle Arthur] Used for clothing in the early part of the 20th century.

[Mary] Well, it’s nowhere near as good as the glass cloth in this dress I have on.

[Uncle Arthur] Oh, of course not. And cotton cloth was more expensive too.

[Mary] You know, Uncle Arthur. Come to think of it, our ancestors didn’t know very much. Imagine having glass all around them and not knowing how to use it like we do.

[Uncle Arthur] Oh, but they did. Of course, we use it to a much greater degree than they did, but they suspected that glass might be used like we use it.

[Mary] I’ll bet they never thought to use it to make paper like we have.

[Uncle Arthur] I understand they even used metal plates to cook their food in.

[Mary] They did?!

[Uncle Arthur] Uh huh. But we must remember, Mary, the foundation for all our progress was laid back there in the 20th century. You wouldn’t have your lovely glass school room to work in if it wasn’t for them. Or your soft glass mattress to sleep on or your, uh… (fades out)

Given that 2037 is only 17 years away, it was interesting and amusing to see what types of things 1937 thought we might be doing with glass nowadays. While I can understand using glass for cooking, I’m not sure a glass mattress would be very comfortable!

Glass-blower John Breda "This 'trombonist' really plays hot."

Check back for highlights from another episode of The World Is Yours next month!

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