The Impact of Glass / What Has Glass Done For Us?


The European Union has recently declared glass uniquely ‘carbon negative’ in that its applications reduce CO2 emissions in greater measure than those released during its manufacture. Glass is the first man-made material to have been awarded this premier status, and is unique in many other ways.

This lecture examines the astonishing impact of glass on both the lives of our ancestors and, more especially, our own. Indeed, Andy shares the contention that glass is the greatest substance ever created.

This hypothesis was discovered in the 1990s by the eminent Cambridge anthropologist, Alan Macfarlane, who had long pursued ‘The Needham Mystery’. This, as he put it, concerned why ‘Western Civilisation has been so successful and pushed forward at the fastest knowledge growth rate in the history of mankind. Is there one reason or several?’

He discovered the answer by chance in a pub one evening when his drinking partner, Gerry Martin, suggested that it was attributable to one single factor: the widespread availability in the West of glass, a substance that had been largely unavailable anywhere else on earth. For Macfarlane’s rational, see here.

Inspired by Macfarlane, this talk explores the catalytic effect that glass has had across the range of human endeavour since the Renaissance: through science, medicine and technology to architecture, travel and communications. Where, for instance, would be without spectacles, light bulbs and windscreens? How many of us would be alive if it were not for the use of microscopes in identifying germs and microbes? And how pleasurable would life be without window glass and loft insulation? Without glass, we would have no computers, televisions, films, telephones... Glass is a man-made substance that takes on ‘magical’ properties in transforming our lives to an extent that is both immeasurable and almost entirely unrecognised. This talk attempts to put this omission to rights.