Materials in Today's World

The Glass Age


Let’s take a look at this introduction to the Glass Age. This video was produced by glass manufacturer Corning Incorporated and is hosted by Myth Busters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.

To Watch

Click for the transcript of The Glass Age, Part 1: Flexible, Bendable Glass.

ADAM SAVAGE: Pop quiz: if you are able to look back on the present from deep in the future what age would you say we're living in?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Is this a trick question? I mean I want to say information age, but it seems too obvious. Can I say more than one age?

ADAM SAVAGE: yeah I think it is safe to say that we are living in more than one age. From the beginning of humanity, we've seen prevailing technologies marked with milestones the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, all occurring many thousands of years ago. Man's mastery of these materials has defined us, but by that metric the last couple of hundred years have seen a flurry of Ages the steam age the Industrial Age the Atomic Age the television age, the Space Age, to name, but a few but those are not the answers I was looking for.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Is that a clue?

ADAM SAVAGE: Yes it is. I think that this age could be classified as the glass age.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: That's not what I was thinking. I know so how are we in the glass age?

ADAM SAVAGE: Well let me put it to you this way can you imagine a world without glass now I don't want a cheeky answer I want you to really think about it.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Okay, no. I can't imagine the world without glass.

ADAM SAVAGE: Exactly. Glass is really quite extraordinary. Without it, many of our major accomplishments would never have happened. Glass has a deep and complex history and as a material, it has properties and characteristics that we are only just beginning to understand. We look right through it and think of it one dimensionally. Most of us think of glass as a fragile brittle thing that if not handled correctly will break in a spectacular fashion.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: So you're gonna break that to make a point?



ADAM SAVAGE: Yes you can and it's true our everyday common variety of glass is brittle, but it doesn't have to be that way. Glass has already altered our lives and is behaving in ways that is totally unexpected.


ADAM SAVAGE: Let's start with a history of glass.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: I think I can handle that. Glasses we know it is most commonly made of silica the primary ingredient of beach sand. Mix silica with a couple of other key ingredients heat it all up till it melts and bang you got glass. Humans have been making glass since ancient times starting with beads, vessels, and ceremonial accouterment. Glass making techniques spread out from Mesopotamia cultured culture changing in incremental ways for much of the last forty-five hundred years or so. The Romans even had glass windows in their important buildings as early as the 1st century AD. Glassblowing was discovered around that time and soon inexpensive and ubiquitous glass became one of the hallmarks of the Roman Empire, but no period has seen such growth in the development of glass technologies as in the last 150 years. We've been able to unlock the secrets of glass in ways that would have seemed like magic to our forebearers.



ADAM SAVAGE: So tell me what's so special about the last 150 years?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Well several things. In that period technology evolved in an exponential rate with that came tools and processes that enabled advancement across all material sciences. The leader in glass material science was and still is an upstate New York glass company that started out in the mid-1800s - Corning incorporated. One of their first products was a toughened glass lens for railroad signal lanterns that offered two radical improvements over any other lens of that time. They could be produced in a consistent color and more importantly, it didn't break when rain hit the hot glass. This helped save lives by bringing down the number of train wrecks, but it also set a course for a hundred and sixty years of innovation in glass. Of course everybody knows about Corning ware and Pyrex products - those innovations came from Corning during their early part of the last century.

ADAM SAVAGE: You know, I have tons of this in my kitchen.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Corning no longer makes kitchen ware. They've innovated way beyond that. Let's take a look we'll start with this optical fiber right optical fiber this does two things both astonishing the first one is this.

ADAM SAVAGE: That right there is pure glass a glass strand inside the cable tightly wound around a pencil and yet not breaking. When you stop and think about it that is a mind bender. Okay, what's the second thing?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Well it's the way the light moves through the glass when the glass is bent this way you'd expect light to leak out and get weaker and corrupt the data that it carries but that's not happening. Nearly all the light entering this optical fiber is coming out the other end.

ADAM SAVAGE: So it has a low attenuation.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Yeah, exactly. Very low. In the late 1960s Corning figured out how to limit the attenuation or loss of light as it travels through fiber even when that fiber is bent.


JAMIE HYNEMAN: This discovery led to the practical use of fiber as a medium for voice and data communications over great distances ushering in an era of low-cost high bandwidth communications and ultimately the Internet as we know it.

ADAM SAVAGE: Wow so just how much data can these optical fibers carry?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: This video playing back right here is sucking in data at around 20 gigabits per second.

ADAM SAVAGE: It's a lot of data.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Yeah this is Ultra High Definition raw video, but even in this case the optical fiber is not anywhere near capacity. The bottlenecks are here and here not here. The practical limit of data transport over optical fiber keeps increasing using today's technology. It's possible to transport more than a million gigabits per second about appetitive. That'd be like downloading 17,000 high-definition movies for Netflix in a single second.

ADAM SAVAGE: That's amazing. Okay tell me about this stuff.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Well obviously it's an optical fiber as well, but instead of sending light through one end and out the other it emits light throughout its entire length.

ADAM SAVAGE: Cool. What's it good for?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: I have no idea. Okay, so I was able to seriously bend a strand of glass didn't break, but what do you think is going to happen when I try to bend a pane of glass? Ah, rhetorical question check this out.

ADAM SAVAGE: That doesn't look like it went very well.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Well that was soda lime glass the kind of normal stuff we see around us every day, but watch what happens next. This this is glass - it's called willow glass also made by Corning and it's flexible.

ADAM SAVAGE: No way. I cannot believe that is glass.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Well it is. There's no trickery here. This is glass, but it's as flexible as paper.

ADAM SAVAGE: So what kind of applications does that have?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Well that's where it gets really cool. Check this out.

ADAM SAVAGE: Alright so looks like a piece of stainless steel and what is this willow glass bonded to one side is a scratch resistant coating?


ADAM SAVAGE: Okay, but tell me this how is the willow glass anywhere near as durable as stainless?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Well that's a good question. Watch this.

ADAM SAVAGE: That is amazing. I cannot believe that the blade did not shatter the glass.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: It didn't and that's just half the story.

ADAM SAVAGE: All right, so what are we doing?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Give me that. Okay take this.

ADAM SAVAGE: This is heavy man. What do you want me to do with it?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: I want you to drop that right on that piece of stainless steel with a willow glass on it.

ADAM SAVAGE: Seriously?

ADAM SAVAGE: Let's see what happens.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Here we go. Three, two, one.


JAMIE HYNEMAN: It dented it, but it didn't break the glass.

ADAM SAVAGE: That is insane.

JAMIE HYNEMAN: And you can attach this to just about any solid surface.

ADAM SAVAGE: Bendy, flexible, durable glass impressive and characteristics you wouldn't normally associate with glass, right?

JAMIE HYNEMAN: Right. I like this new glass age we're in.

In the next section, we will discuss why ceramics are brittle and metals are not.