National Geographic : 1993 Dec
AWN CAME FROZEN and hushed to the late win ter's day, but it was a good warmth that filled the hall at the great Swedish glassworks, Orre fors. It was here I had come to make my vase. Having observed some of the greatest blow ers of glass in the world at work, I was driven by an urge to create my own signature piece - nothing grand, but a modest vase with, I hoped, a certain lyrical quality. It started well enough, with words from an old Hindi saying dancing in my mind: "If you are a blower of glass, fashion the cup as if it were to be touched by the lips of your beloved." One end of the five-foot-long pipe for blowing was thrust into a furnace through an opening called a glory hole and twirled around to collect a gob of molten glass, much as a fork is twirled to gather spaghetti. At a temperature of 2100°F the mixture, a variation of the ages-old basic recipe for making glass-silica, sodium carbon ate, and calcium oxide, or, simply, sand, soda, and lime - was rude with glaring color, and thick and inching. Earlier I had watched Juhani Karppinen, an employee at Orre fors for more than 20 years and now a gaffer, or master glass blower, at work and marveled at the way he coaxed form from the molten glass. "You will know by the feel of it on the pipe if it is right," he told me. Astonishingly, a vase began to take crude shape as I blew into the pipe. I stood atop a box holding the pipe so that it pointed straight down, allowing the blown liquid to swell at the base and pull down to form the start of a neck. There was more blowing until the glass drew thin and the neck long enough to take the stem of a dahlia. The men assisting me pronounced it done and smiled to signal that it was a vase of some distinction. It was only after retrieving the piece the next day from the annealing oven, where it was placed to cool over a period of four hours, that I discovered the flaw: When put down, the vase tended to roll from side to side, like a bottle set adrift in the surf. Glass has been blown that way since the Romans started doing it around 50 B.C. It was long before that, however, when the first man-made glass appeared. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder attributed the discovery to a group of Phoenician sailors who were on a beach preparing to cook over a fire. Finding no stones on which to place their pots, they took from their cargo lumps of natron-an alkali used then in embalming the dead-and rested the pots on them. When the natron was heated and mingled with the sand, a strange liquid flowed in streams. Wrote Pliny: "and this... was the origin of glass." A nice story, but hardly true. The most reliable research places the invention of glass sometime in the third millennium before the JAMES L. AMOS'S photographs have illustrated 22 GEOGRAPHIC articles. Among the most recent were "Secrets of Animal Navigation" (June 1991) and "The Life and Times of William Henry Jackson" (February 1989). When not on assignment, he lives in Maryland with his wife, two cats, and a dog.
1993 Nov 30