Through the looking glass

The image of Seattle being refracted through m...

The image of Seattle being refracted through myopic glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some inventions are so mundane that we barely give them a second thought. They just do their job well and everyone takes them for granted. There is one such invention that I rely on every day of my conscious life. Like the majority of the population, I wear spectacles. Without them – I’m lost. I can fumble my way around, especially if I’m familiar with the terrain, but ask me to read anything and I’m sunk.

Nowadays of course, the lenses are fashioned from lightweight plastic, but it wasn’t always the case. When I started wearing glasses at the tender age of 2, they really were made of glass. In those days, optical technology was nowhere near so advanced, so the lenses were thick and heavy. No matter, I have always been grateful for the invention of glass.

Without glass, homes would have no windows and be very draughty and cold. There would be no TVs if there were no screens. Nor would there be any tablets, mobile phones or laptops. There would be limits on how fast cars without windscreens could comfortably travel. Aeroplanes would not be able to fly so high or so fast and there would be no such thing as a skyscraper.

Thanks to volcanic activity, glass occurs naturally but not in a particularly workable form. Stone age man managed to use bits of glass as cutting tools, but that was about as far as it went. Man made glass was in full swing in the late Bronze Age, but commonly only used for beads or drinking vessels. It wasn’t until medieval times that man started to make glass window panes.

The building of Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton for the great exhibition of 1850 in London marked the first real use of glass as a fundamental construction material. During the industrial revolution, glass manufacture became increasingly mechanised and refined and the material became ubiquitous.

Optic fibres have been spun since Roman times, but it was only in the late 18th century that the Chappe Brothers from France invented an optical telegraph system. Others experimented with the optical fibres using them for everything from illuminating body cavities to central lighting for the home. Fast forward to today and fibre optic cable forms the very bedrock of the World Wide Web.

Scientists in Turkey have even invented a form of spray on glass although the invention has been taken to market by a German company. It is a form of silicone dioxide which can create a flexible and even breathable layer. The substance, when applied, is 500 times thinner than a human hair. It is environmentally friendly, food safe and is quickly finding applications in just about every field of human endeavour.

So the next time you look at a screen, a skyscraper or drive your car or take a flight – be thankful for the material that makes it all possible.

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