The Value of Transparency

Once you start looking for it, it can be quite staggering to realise just how much of our modern world is, quite literally, built on glass. The stuff is manufactured in vast quantities, coating our windows, lights, screens, skyscrapers and countless other uses. Some argue that it is even responsible for the entire development of the world, particularly in the west, as we know it; it’s almost a wonder we take it for granted so.

Technically, out commonplace use of the word ‘glass’ rather oversimplifies the term; glasses are in fact a family of materials that all exhibit the same amorphous structure and behaviour under heating whilst not actually all being made from the same stuff. The member of this family that we are most familiar with and will commonly refer to as simply ‘glass’ is soda-lime glass, made predominantly from silica dioxide with a few other additives to make it easier to produce. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me tell the story from the beginning.

Like all the best human inventions, glass was probably discovered by accident. Archaeological evidence suggests glassworking was probably an Egyptian invention in around the third millennia BC, Egypt (or somewhere nearby) being just about the only place on earth at the time where the three key ingredients needed for glass production occured naturally and in the same place: silica dioxide (aka sand), sodium carbonate (aka soda, frequently found as a mineral or from plant ashes) and a relatively civilised group of people capable of building a massive great fire. When Egyptian metalworkers got sand and soda in their furnaces by accident, when removed they discovered the two had fused to form a hard, semi-transparent, almost alien substance; the first time glass had been produced anywhere on earth.

This type of glass was far from perfect; for one thing, adding soda has the unfortunate side-effect of making silica glass water-soluble, and for another they couldn’t yet work out how to make the glass clear. Then there were the problems that came with trying to actually make anything from the stuff. The only glass forming technique at the time was called core forming, a moderately effective but rather labour-intensive process illustrated well in this video. Whilst good for small, decorative pieces, it became exponentially more difficult to produce an item by this method the larger it needed to be, not to mention the fact that it couldn’t produce flat sheets of glass for use as windows or whatever.

Still, onwards and upwards and all that, and developments were soon being made in the field of glass technology. Experimentation with various additives soon yielded the discovery that adding lime (calcium oxide) plus a little aluminium and magnesium oxide made soda glass insoluble, and thus modern soda-lime glass was discovered. In the first century BC, an even more significant development came along with the discovery of glass blowing as a production method. Glass blowing was infinitely more flexible than core forming, opening up an entirely new avenue for glass as a material, but crucially it allowed glass products to be produced faster and thus be cheaper than pottery equivalents . By this time, the Eastern Mediterranean coast where these discoveries took place was part of the Roman Empire, and the Romans took to glass like a dieter to chocolate; glass containers and drinking vessels spread across the Empire from the glassworks of Alexandria, and that was before they discovered manganese dioxide could produce clear glass and that it was suddenly suitable for architectural work.

Exactly why glass took off on quite such a massive scale in Europe yet remained little more than a crude afterthought in the east and China (the other great superpower of the age) is somewhat unclear. Pottery remained the material of choice throughout the far east, and they got very skilled at making it too; there’s a reason we in the west today call exceptionally fine, high-quality pottery ‘china’. I’ve only heard one explanation for why this should be so, and it centres around alcohol.

Both the Chinese and Roman empires loved wine, but did so in different ways. To the Chinese, alcohol was a deeply spiritual thing, and played an important role in their religious procedures. This attitude was not unheard of in the west (the Egyptians, for example, believed the god Osiris invented beer, and both Greeks and Romans worshipped a god of wine), but the Roman Empire thought of wine in a secular as well as religious sense; in an age where water was often unsafe to drink, wine became the drink of choice for high society in all situations. One of the key features of wine to the Roman’s was its appearance, hence why the introduction of clear vessels allowing them to admire this colour was so attractive to them. By contrast, the Chinese day-to-day drink of choice was tea. whose appearance was of far less importance than the ability of its container to dissipate heat (as fine china is very good at). The introduction of clear drinking vessels would, therefore, have met with only a limited market in the east, and hence it never really took off. I’m not entirely sure that this argument holds up under scrutiny, but it’s quite a nice idea.

Whatever the reason, the result was unequivocal; only in Europe was glassmaking technology used and advanced over the years. Stained glass was one major discovery, and crown glass (a method for producing large, flat sheets) another. However, the crucial developments would be made in the early 14th century, not long after the Republic of Venice (already a centre for glassmaking) ordered all its glassmakers to move out to the island of Murano to reduce the risk of fire (which does seem ever so slightly strange for a city founded, quite literally, on water).  On Murano, the local quartz pebbles offered glassmakers silica of hitherto unprecedented purity which, combined with exclusive access to a source of soda ash, allowed for the production of exceptionally high-quality glassware. The Murano glassmakers became masters of the art, producing glass products of astounding quality, and from here onwards the technological revolution of glass could begin. The Venetians worked out how to make lenses, in turn allowing for the discovery of the telescope (forming the basis of the work of both Copernicus and Galileo) and spectacles (extending the working lifespan of scribes and monks across the western world). The widespread introduction of windows (as opposed to fabric-covered holes in the wall) to many houses, particularly in the big cities, dramatically improved the health of their occupants by both keeping the house warmer and helping keep out disease. Perhaps most crucially, the production of high-quality glass vessels was not only to revolutionise biology, and in turn medicine, as a discipline, but to almost single-handedly create the modern science of chemistry, itself the foundation stone upon which most of modern physics is based. These discoveries would all, given enough time and quite a lot of social upheaval, pave the way for the massive technological advancements that would characterise the western world in the centuries to come, and which would finally allow the west to take over from the Chinese and Arabs and become the world’s leading technological superpowers.* Nowadays, of course, glass has been taken even further, being widely used as a building material (its strength-to-weight ratio far exceeds that of concrete, particularly when it is made to ‘building grade’ standard), in televisions, and fibre optic cables (which may yet revolutionise our communications infrastructure).

Glass is, of course, not the only thing to have catalysed the technological breakthroughs that were to come; similar arguments have been made regarding gunpowder and the great social and political changes that were to grip Europe between roughly 1500 and 1750. History is never something that one can place a single cause on (the Big Bang excepted), but glass was undoubtedly significant in the western world’s rise to prominence during the second half of the last millennia, and the Venetians probably deserve a lot more credit than they get for creating our modern world.

*It is probably worth mentioning that China is nowadays the world’s largest producer of glass.


The Cross

Humankind has long been inventive when it comes to the sphere of killing one another; I could probably write a whole other blog solely on the subject of weaponry for the next 50 years before running low on material, and that doesn’t even approach the field of organised execution. Hanging and stoning are two old-as-the-hills methods still, unfortunately, in use in some parts of the world, and countless others have been developed with varying degrees of complexity, pain and success involved. However, one execution method has proved to carry more cultural weight than all others, and mostly thanks to one man; I speak, of course, of crucifixion.

We all think of crucifixion as a Roman punishment, but like so many Roman things it wasn’t their invention (seriously, even their religion was nicked from the Greeks). Crucifixion first started off in Persia in around the 6th century BC, in the area that would later become the Seleucid Empire after Alexander the Great went and conquered all of it. Like so many other things, the practice later spread across the remnants of Alexander’s Empire, including his native Greece, and here it began making its way towards the ‘civilised’ world of the time. The Greeks were, apparently, generally opposed to this horrible method of execution and used it very sparingly, but much of Alexander’s old Empire would later find its way into Roman hands, and so the idea eventually made its way to Rome. Given that this was a culture whose primary form of entertainment (garnering hundreds of thousands of spectators, something even modern sporting culture can’t match) involved various people and animals dressing up to kill one another in as ‘entertaining’ a fashion as possible, it is perhaps not surprising that the Romans thought crucifixion showed potential as an execution method, particularly for those they wanted to make an example of.

This is hardly surprising; of all humanity’s execution methods, few can rival crucifixion when it comes to being horrifying and showy. This is partly helped, slightly bizarrely, by its cheapness; to show them off to the general populace, something like hanging or beheading would require some sort of raised platform, which covers only a small area and takes a decent amount of time and energy to create. The Roman alternative (the arena) was even more expensive, requiring an investment in either animals or an elaborate set of costumes and procedure in order to provide an ‘entertaining’ execution, and given that games were generally free to go and watch (paid for by the emperor or local governor to curry goodwill with the populace) it wasn’t going to pay itself back. By contrast, the sum total of all monetary investment required for crucifixion is two long sticks, some rope or nails, and a bloke to affix the resulting structure to; the crosses were even moved to the required site by the prisoners themselves, and erecting them took a few soldiers almost no time at all. This cheapness made it easy to show off their victims on a vast scale; after the gladiator Spartacus’ slave revolt was crushed in 71BC, the 6,000 captured prisoners were all crucified along the Appian way, a trail of crosses stretching from Rome to Capua. That’s 200 kilometres (125 miles), along both sides of the road. A forceful example indeed.

The very nature of crucifixion itself also helps when it comes to being showy. The crosses used in crucifixion were big old things, three or four metres tall if they’re an inch, just to ensure the unfortunate victim could be seen from great distances away. The mechanics of the execution build on this; it is often assumed that death by crucifixion comes from exhaustion, hunger, pain and blood loss, but in fact crucifixion causes death by suffocation as much as anything. With one’s upper body held only by spread eagled arms, it becomes very tiring to keep it in position, and one’s head and torso tend to fall forwards after time. However, with the arms pinned in position this stretches out one’s joints extremely painfully, offering no respite from the agony, and pulls upwards on the ribcage. This in turn puts extreme stress on the diaphragm, meaning it has to pull one’s entire weight upward every time you attempt to take a breath, and crushes the lungs under one’s own weight, slowly squeezing the air and life out of the victim. If the executors were feeling kind, then the victim would be tied to the cross, resulting in a slower but slightly less agonisingly painful death. However, Jesus was famously attached to his cross by nails through his feet and wrists (some versions say the hands, but the flesh there isn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of a body properly), and whilst this could offer the possibility of blessedly quick unconsciousness and death due to blood loss and the extreme pain, the sheer agony of the experience doesn’t bear thinking about. No matter how devoted to their cause the victim was, their screams must have undoubtedly echoed for miles as they died, just adding to the showiness of their death. Crucifixion was the ultimate tool, for the Romans, for sending out a warning, a very obvious, demonstrative way of discouraging people from following the lead of the victim.

That this approach failed somewhat is like saying the Pope thinks God is a kinda alright guy; crucifixion has guaranteed martyrdom for countless early saints and, of course, Jesus. The concept of ‘he suffered and died on the cross for us’ is, more than anything, the fundamental message of Christianity, embodying the idea of undergoing extreme pain and hardship simply to try and do right by the world and emphasising the pure and unadulterated goodness of Jesus as a person. But this has had an unexpected effect in the long run; since the story is told so often to children, the gory details are often glossed over, or the story simply because so fundamental and oft-told that it becomes very easy to forget just how horrific his agony would have been. Even this post has treated the subject of crucifixion with a decidedly neutral tone, without considering properly just how horrible it is to inflict this level of pain onto a fellow human being. Crucifixion might have been abolished by the Roman Empire 1600 years ago (by Emperor Constatine, if you’re wondering), but it would not do to forget it. Very few things are ever worth forgetting, and torture and murder are most certainly not among them.