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Glass: A World History (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 45, Number 2, April 2004
pp. 416-418 | 10.1353/tech.2004.0103

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Technology and Culture 45.2 (2004) 416-418

Glass: A World History. By Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xii+255. $27.50.

The last book I read with this title was the American edition of 4,000 Jahre Glas by Fritz Kämpfer and Klaus G. Beyer, a narrative history of glass and glassmaking. This book is something completely different. Despite its subtitle, and the statement on page 7 that it embraces "the whole known globe," it is not a comprehensive history, even though it does begin with a short history of glass in the Near East and Europe from its origins to the seventeenth century. Instead, Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin (professor of archaeological science at the University of Cambridge and cofounder of Eurotherm Ltd., respectively) present a highly unusual overview of the role of glass in the civilizations of Eurasia in the last thousand years.

About half of the book examines the emergence of science in medieval and Renaissance Europe, beginning with the introduction of the experimental method. European thinkers built on the distant foundation of Greek science, which was transmitted and greatly enriched by Arab scholars between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and they took advantage of the skills of the glassmaker to equip themselves with mirrors, lenses, and alchemical apparatus. Europeans, from Roger Bacon to Galileo and beyond, became observers and experimenters. When people learned how to examine the natural universe, unswerving acceptance of the written word began to give way to a questioning of received opinions.

Macfarlane and Martin approach their survey of the impact of glass in the Renaissance by way of painting. In what they acknowledge is a sweeping generalization, they characterize most European painting before Giotto, and most non-European painting both before and after him, as lacking perspective. Why, they ask, was perspective developed in Western Europe? Several factors conspired to make this happen: acceptance of the un-Platonic idea that it is not improper for art to create illusion; familiarity with the three-dimensional world captured on the two-dimensional planes of mirrors and windowpanes; and, specifically, the observation of perspective in mirror images—hence Leonardo's description of the mirror as the "master of painters." As far as we know, Renaissance Europe, with its advanced glass industry, was the first, and remained for a long time the only, civilization to master perspective.

Another Bacon, Francis, in the early seventeenth century, foresaw the brave new world of experimental science made possible by glass for microscopes, telescopes, and apparatus that resisted corrosive chemicals and allowed the scientist to observe chemical reactions. Macfarlane and Martin contrast the availability of glass and the march of science in Europe with the limited amount of glass and the shortage of scientific progress in Asia. The correlation of glass and science is irresistible.

The authors now shift their attention from experimental science to spectacles. In the West, biconvex lenses, introduced in the thirteenth century, gave farsighted, middle-aged people an additional decade or two of useful professional activity. In the East there was no comparable development. Western observers in China agree that local, rock-crystal spectacles did nothing to improve the wearer's vision. Moreover, throughout the Far East myopia seems to have afflicted four times as many young people as it did in the West. Macfarlane and Martin discuss the causes of this disparity, speculating about heredity, diet, and behavior. Did the myopia that plagued eastern Asia derive from the need to learn huge numbers of detailed characters in order to be literate, or from a cultural disposition to work on a very small scale? Whatever the causes may have been, myopia literally confined the horizons of Eastern science until the adoption of Western-style spectacles.

Readers of Glass: A World History may quibble about historical details (contrary to the authors' account, the Romans used quite a lot of window glass), inconsistencies (did European science expand dramatically from 1100 to 1600, or 1200 to 1700, or in the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries?), digressions (the discussion of myopia and its causes occupies 10 percent of the book), and editorial slips ("micro," as in "micro-engineering," is a prefix not...

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