Glassblowing Makes a Comeback in Science

ByABC News
September 11, 2000, 8:43 AM

R A H W A Y, N.J., Sept. 11 -- In a small room at the back of Mercksgleaming corporate campus, the 2,000-year-old art of glassblowingthrives.

Here, glassblowers Wayne Dockery and Harold Heimey Heimbackwork with scientists to create devices that help develop the latestmedicines, as well as the first-ever automated tick feeder and aflea counter (for agricultural research) that allows only one fleato move through a passage at a time.

The flea counter, shaped somewhat like an hourglass, has anarrow waist blown to just the width of one flea. The tickfeeder allows scientists to nourish the insects without keeping alive animal in the lab.

Hot Enough to Melt Buttons

Nearly every flat surface in the shop is covered with fireproofmaterial, much of it blackened from years of exposure to openflames. The shop is warm much of the time, and when the two areworking on a particularly large piece the heat can bedestructive.

Its hot enough to melt your buttons, said Dockery, addingthat hes ruined several shirts that way over the years.

Like many glassblowing shops, the center of the room isdominated by a giant lathe that can hold pieces several feet indiameter. On a recent day in August, the device spun slowly understeadily decreasing heat to allow it to cool without cracking. Setup on countertops to the side are flame lamps used to worksmaller pieces.

The men and women who form and temper intricate equipment forchemists, biologists and other laboratory scientists say theirskills are increasingly in demand, as the pharmaceutical andbiotechnology industries grow.

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

Its an art, and not everyone realizes its an art, saidBill Robbins, production manager at Kontes glassblowers inVineland. Not everyone gets to the top.

Dawn Hodgkins, office manager at the American ScientificGlassblowers Society in Thomasville, N.C., said there are about2,500 scientific glassblowers in the country.