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One Step Closer: The Iron Glassblower

All About Glass

A little more than 2,000 years ago, a Roman glassworker did something that dramatically changed the course of history. He blew a puff of air through a hollow rod into a gob of hot glass. The gob inflated into a bubble. At that moment, glassblowing was born.

Glassblowing provided a way to make containers more quickly and cheaply. Glass bottles, once used exclusively to hold rare perfumes and oils, were now available for everyday use. As the demand for bottles soared, shops for making hand-blown glass flourished.

glassblowers in a factory

Day after day, in the factories of the mid-1800s, teams of skilled men blew hot glass into molds tended by boys. The work was fast and furious. The factories were hellishly hot. And the demand for glass bottles never stopped.

By the late 1800s, machines were replacing workers—except in the glass industry. Glassmakers had tried to mechanize glassblowing by imitating the method for making bottles by hand. It didn’t work.

American glassmaker Philip Arbogast suggested a new approach in 1881. Why not turn the hand method on its head? Glassblowers always finished a bottle’s neck and mouth last. If a machine formed them first, it would have something to hold on to while the rest of the bottle was being blown.

Arbogast was right, but he didn’t reap the rewards of his revolutionary concept. He sold his patent without building his machine. Others capitalized on his ideas. The machines they built started the glass industry on the road to mechanization. But these semi-automatic machines still needed to have hot glass fed into their molds by hand.

Arbogast’s invention changed bottle making. He eliminated the glassblower and started the industry on the road to automation. But a person—usually a boy—was still needed to deliver the molten glass to the machine’s molds.

semi-automatic bottle machines

The Corning Museum of Glass
This article was originally published in Innovations in Glass, 1999, pp. 48–49.

Published on October 25, 2011