Magazine | October 18, 2010, Issue

A Sea of Glass

John Derbyshire sets forth with panes, putty, and push points

What a place it is, this world we humans have made! It has such variety, such abundance of skills and knowledge, so many aspects one never thinks of from one year’s end to the next till they are suddenly forced on one’s attention. Consider, for example, glass.

Over the past three or four years, windows have been broken in inconsequential parts of my property — basement, garage. Here a hasty contractor had swung a pipe; there I had been careless with a ladder; here, and there, and here, my son’s BB gun had shown its paces.

These were out-of-the-way locations, and my son needed to work through his BB phase so that he might progress to real guns on a proper shooting range, and there are always other priorities in house maintenance. So I’d boarded up the damaged panes in the spirit of the old lady in the Belfast joke from the time of the Troubles. She goes to an optician with a pair of broken spectacles. He: “I suppose you’ll be after wanting new lenses?” She: “Nah, just board ’em up, they’ll only get broken again.”

Procrastination must have an end, though. Two of the wounded panes could be seen from certain positions when sitting in the garden. Mrs. Straggler mentioned this to me at an early point in the summer. At a very slightly later point, she mentioned it again. It became a recurring topic.

I took the hint and resolved to act. Our garage is an old structure, the windows simple wooden sashes, the panes single rectangular sheets of plain glass. How difficult could it be to replace them? I made measurements and consulted the Yellow Pages. Yes, there was a glass shop nearby.

The glass shop was most helpful. After scrutinizing my measurements, they said there would be no problem cutting the panes. Would I mind waiting? I didn’t mind at all.

They had a pretty little display of glass windows in elaborately hinged sample frames: plain glass, frosted glass, patterned glass, embossed glass, colored glass . . . So many kinds of glass! When I had exhausted the display there was a trade magazine to browse, titled, with admirable economy, Glass. What news from the world of glass? “New Energy Technologies Inc. successfully debuted its proprietary SolarWindow technology, capable of transforming everyday surfaces, such as glass, into electricity-generating windows . . .”

“You got push points?” This was the man from the desk, trying to be helpful. Push points? “Doing the job yourself, right?” I still had no idea about push points. He called me over and explained. Glazier’s push points are teeny metal triangles used to hold a window pane in place before it’s caulked round with putty. Push points! I thanked him, collected my panes, and headed to Home Depot for putty and push points.

#page#Though I say it myself, I think I did a pretty creditable job on those windows. The putty is neatly applied, the push points properly buried under it. The panes themselves, in their un-smudged, un-scratched newness, are so clear as to be near-invisible. As I contemplated them, Orwell’s prescription came to mind: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Then, by association, something else from Orwell, that I had to go to my study to track down. It’s his diary of London in the Blitz. He is walking down deserted Oxford Street after a bombing raid: “with the late afternoon sun shining straight down the empty roadway and glittering on innumerable fragments of broken glass.”

A very civilized thing, glass — almost an index of civilization. When civilization retreats, it leaves behind broken glass. How long has that been true? The old quip, retailed by Gibbon, that the emperor Augustus “had neither glass to his windows nor a shirt to his back” is now known to be false. There were glass windows in Pompeii, so very likely Augustus did have glass in his windows. What happened to it? Four centuries later, when Alaric the Visigoth carried out the first, fairly restrained, sack of Rome, there must have been some windows broken, though Gibbon does not mention it.

My enthusiasm now is all for glass. Look at my son: 15 years old, bright and capable enough, but un-academic and not likely to gain much from a college education. He might, after graduating high school, learn all about glass. So much to learn! Then start a little business — that glass shop in the town had an air of busy prosperity — or perhaps become a salaryman at New Energy Technologies Inc., generating electricity from glass, helping usher in a new world of green, sustainable, energy-conserving, Goreian rectitude.

(You may imagine me at this point as the Walter Brooke character in The Graduate, leaning portentously over the Dustin Hoffman character, murmuring: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word . . . glass.”)

I recall my only previous significant encounter with the world of glass. I did some graduate work at the University of Liverpool, which had a music department. That department somehow secured the patronage of the Pilkington Glass Corp., headquartered nearby. Thus empatroned, the music department staged a concert of avant-garde music based on the sound of breaking glass. Music students wandered about a stage fitted out with glass objects of every shape, breaking them according to some score they had devised. The high point of this splintering symphony came when an electrical device fixed at the center of a large square sheet of glass was set to vibrating. The pitch of the vibrations increased till the whole sheet was visibly in motion — then suddenly shattered into a trillion fragments! We concert-goers stood and applauded, I am still not sure why.

Glass may not be with us much longer. Neal Stephenson wrote a novel titled The Diamond Age, about a world of the future in which the technology of assembling matter atom by atom has been perfected. The main source of pure atoms is open to the public, who can walk through it looking at the processes, “peering through walls of glass (actually solid diamond, which was cheaper).” Which it would be, the atomic structure of diamond being far simpler than that of glass.

Will this come to pass? Who knows? One can never be sure about the future, which we see only through a glass, darkly.

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