Glassblowing Makes a Comeback in Science

In a small room at the back of Merck’s gleaming corporate campus, the 2,000-year-old art of glassblowing thrives.

Here, glassblowers Wayne Dockery and Harold “Heimey” Heimback work with scientists to create devices that help develop the latest medicines, as well as the first-ever automated tick feeder and a flea counter (for agricultural research) that allows only one flea to move through a passage at a time.

The flea counter, shaped somewhat like an hourglass, has a narrow “waist” blown to just the width of one flea. The tick feeder allows scientists to nourish the insects without keeping a live animal in the lab.

Hot Enough to Melt Buttons

Nearly every flat surface in the shop is covered with fireproof material, much of it blackened from years of exposure to open flames. The shop is warm much of the time, and — when the two are working on a particularly large piece — the heat can be destructive.

“It’s hot enough to melt your buttons,” said Dockery, adding that he’s ruined several shirts that way over the years.

Like many glassblowing shops, the center of the room is dominated by a giant lathe that can hold pieces several feet in diameter. On a recent day in August, the device spun slowly under steadily decreasing heat to allow it to cool without cracking. Set up on countertops to the side are flame “lamps” used to work smaller pieces.

The men and women who form and temper intricate equipment for chemists, biologists and other laboratory scientists say their skills are increasingly in demand, as the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries grow.

The tricky part, they say, is finding workers with the coordination and patience the job requires.

“It’s an art, and not everyone realizes it’s an art,” said Bill Robbins, production manager at Kontes glassblowers in Vineland. “Not everyone gets to the top.”

Dawn Hodgkins, office manager at the American Scientific Glassblowers Society in Thomasville, N.C., said there are about 2,500 scientific glassblowers in the country.

At the top of the profession of scientific glassblowing are custom glassblowers — the people who can take scientists’ vague ideas for experiments and turn them into complex laboratory equipment.

“A lot of times, they’re just blue-sky ideas,” said Daryl Smith, a former Kontes glassblower who works at the nation’s only scientific glassblowing degree program, at Salem Community College in Carneys Point.

The Birth of Glassblowing

Dennis Briening, who works at the college and as a glassblower at Hercules Incorporated in Wilmington, Del., said the process of creating an entirely new piece is among the most challenging a glassblower can face.

“You have a whole different approach,” he said. “You’re not limited by previous experiences, so you can really brainstorm and find new venues to reach your goals.”

The school is in the heart of southern New Jersey, where glassblowing got its start in this country. In the late 18th century, the pure sand in Salem and Cumberland counties drew glassblowers to set up shop in the Vineland area. The school followed the teachers and the jobs, beginning the glassblowing program in 1959.

“They’re coming from all over, but most of them either start in that area or they may move there to go to the school,” Hodgkins said.

Briening said the field is growing.

“I think there’s an increasing number of people that would like to be glassblowers,” he said, “and I think there’s an increasing number of opportunities in glass.”

The college admits about 20 students each year into the two-year program. In addition to the mechanics of glassblowing, they learn math, physics, chemistry and computer sciences.

After graduating, students begin at the bottom rung of glassblowing as lathe operators — production line work that requires making one item over and over.

“To attain top status, it takes eight to 10 years,” Smith said.

He went into the profession because the work is stable for those who are talented.

“It was a needed skill, so I changed my career path” from environmental science, he said.

A Range of Salaries

What makes a good glassblower, in addition to patience, are coordination and imagination, according to Smith and Robbins.

A glassblower can remain a lathe operator for an entire career or move on to custom work — either for a company that sells catalog and custom-designed glass, or for university and corporate laboratories, many of which have their own glassblowers.

Briening said glassblower salaries vary widely.

“You can go to whatever level you aspire to,” he said. “You can become an entrepreneur or you could work in a factory.”

At Merck, the two glassblowers have 65 years’ combined experience. Dockery, the chief glassblower, is the son of the man who ran the shop for three decades.

Dockery and Heimback create and repair thousands of glass pieces each year for Merck scientists around the world.

Chemist Herbert Conner, who works with Briening at Hercules, said he has used the work of custom glassblowers frequently throughout his career.

“Glass is a wonderful material to do chemistry [in] because it allows you to do fairly heroic chemistry and still see what you’re doing,” he said. “In the hands of a skilled glassmaker, it’s possible to do things with the containers that you cannot do using other methods.”

Heat and glass can cause injuries, Robbins said.

Contributions to Science

“You’re working with fire and you’re working with glass, so the risk factors are high,” he said, but injuries happen less frequently than might be expected.

Heimback himself, after 28 years in the trade, displays scars and burns on his hands and forearms.

Glass — which consists of sand and additives for heat resistance — acts like a solid, but has many of the properties of liquids.

“It’s actually flowing all the time,” Heimback said.

When glass is heated — to temperatures of 3,900 to 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit — it begins to flow more quickly and becomes flexible.

“It wants to twist and turn and bend,” Heimback said. Because it’s cheap, easy to work with and clear, he added, “glass is a perfect research tool.”

Glassblowers created the first contact lenses and made possible the laser printer and the first semiconductor discs, Briening said.

At Merck, many of the pieces created by the glassblowers are unique.

While the more repetitious aspects of the trade have been automated, Smith said, most glassblowers aren’t afraid they will lose their jobs to machines.

“Philosophically, anything can be automated,” he said, adding, “You have companies that downsize. I’ve never seen them lay off a glassblower.”