Sam Jacoby

A Visit to the MIT Glass Lab

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A venture-some crew headed down to the MIT Glass Lab last week for a demonstration of caneworking.

The Glass Lab is something apart at MIT. Less lasers, more 15th-century Italian glassblowing. I’d assumed that it was a hold-over from the days when chemistry departments blew their own glass and the like, but I believe it comes from the materials’ science department, or some such. There is a much coveted lottery every semester, where a lucky dozen or-so get a chance to learn the craft. I’ve missed every opportunity, alas.

High-Low Tech visits the MIT Glass Lab

The gang, skeptical.

Anyhow, Peter Houk presented some of his work to High-Low Tech a couple of months ago—and then invited us back over to his place to experiment with some new software that Erik Demaine, among others, have been working on. It’s called Virtual Glass, essentially a CAD tool that lets you experiment with different configurations of cane (colored glass rods) and see how the cane will appear once pulled. I don’t know if “pulled” is the technical term, but that’s what it seemed like to me. Making glass has a lot in common with pulling taffy and baking—at least in these early stages.

High-Low Tech visits the MIT Glass Lab

White and red cane—probably six-or-eight inches long—awaiting a pick-up on a glass plug.

Erik gave us a quick demo—though the software is fairly self-explanatory, especially after you’ve seen the cane made—and we came up with a number of designs of varying degrees of practicality. The point, really, was to push the designs as far as we could go—and see what kind of things Peter, Marty, & Erik could put together. This is what I came up with:

Peter was pushing us to make ‘unconventional’ designs, as the last innovations in cane configurations were by an Italian dentist a half-century ago. It’s harder than it might seem. Because the hot glass is twisted as it is pulled into cane, patterns converge very quickly on helices, no matter how loopy your layout. The only real tool you have, then, as a designer, is the distance of each color each color from the center.

High-Low Tech visits the MIT Glass Lab

The Virtual Glass software and my squiggly design.

When a piece of hot glass is pulled out and spun—I’m sure this process has a lovely Italian name that I don’t know—the colors are stretched in concordance to how far they are from the center. Colors near the center of the cane show hardly any rotation at all—a vague waver, maybe. Those towards the edge wrap around dramatically, pulled around the entire circumference. In using a spiral design, the distance of the various canes from the center of the larger cane varied in a way that seemed pretty cool.

High-Low Tech visits the MIT Glass Lab

Fearsome flame fires.

At any rate, Team Glass Lab decided to make it happen. There was only about a half-hour, so time was tight. It was quite a show. In corner one, we’ve got dual furnaces, each heating a white-hot pool of glass. In corner two, a glory-hole, an insanely-hot furnace in which dabs of glass are reheated and heated when on the end of an uh…punty? I may have made that term up—a long metal rod, at any rate. A blowtorch is off in the corner, braying its firey mess. (For some additional anthropological thoughts on the subject, please see: Conner, Erin, Embodied Knowledge in Glassblowing: the experience of meaning and the struggle towards proficiency. I read this paper for a class on qualitative ethnography last year. Smutty stuff.)

High-Low Tech visits the MIT Glass Lab

Something critical taking place.

Watching Peter, Eric, & Marty work was impressive. They zipped around, waving flaming gobs of glass, while we gawked and generally got in the way. In the end, they managed to make the design that we came up with. It was intricate, involving bonding together several different pieces of cane in a variety of ways, and then dousing the resultant mess in yet more glass. Something like making an elaborate, deadly, pastry.

I really wish this was in focus, but alas. This is molten glass being stretched out. Peter’s on one end, Marty the other. By the time it hardened, they’d gotten it up to probably 30 feet long.

High-Low Tech visits the MIT Glass Lab

The cane being pulled. You can see the dyes in the glass radiating their heat.

The finished cane came out pretty cool too, though I think, more subtle than we had hoped. This is part of the end, that they let me take home after it had annealed. The finished cane—even, pencil-long sticks—will be used in blowing a larger, finished piece.

High-Low Tech visits the MIT Glass Lab