Scientific Glassblowers at UMass Amherst Combine High-Tech World with Ancient Art

AMHERST, Mass. - Larry Williams helps make modern, high-tech research possible at the University of Massachusetts by practicing a centuries-old craft: glassblowing. Williams is the University’s master scientific glassblower. He and his assistant, Tim Landers, custom-craft one-of-a-kind glassware needed by scientists and engineers at the University.

Williams, an amiable man who wears a jacket and tie to work, shows some of the intricate creations he’s crafted recently: a glass tube coils and spirals inside a cylinder; a vessel the size and shape of a flower vase sprouts an L-shaped pipe and numerous valves. "Some of the items can be strange-looking," Williams notes. "These are one-of-a-kind pieces that you’ll never see anywhere else." Michael Doherty, the chemical engineering professor who commissioned the vase-like object, which he says is used for distillation, calls it "an absolutely magnificent piece."

Most of the laboratory’s clients come from the departments of polymer science, chemistry, chemical engineering, and physics, although Williams does recall creating a maze-like "bug condominium" for an entomologist some years back. The UMass facility also provides scientific glassware to the Five College community, as well as to UMass Medical Center in Worcester. Williams and Landers also repair glass items, including measuring devices and flasks, because fixing the items is far less expensive than replacing them.

Glass is a highly valued material in science for many reasons, Williams says. It can be molded into any shape; its transparency allows scientists to observe chemical reactions as they occur; and it can be sterilized and reused, or even re-worked into another shape.

There are roughly 1,000 scientific glassblowers across the country, according to the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, based in Thomasville, N.C. The skill is anything but a dying art. People continue to enter the field each year, some through a traditional apprenticeship, and others after earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in scientific glassblowing.

The UMass glassblowers work collaboratively with researchers who visit the Scientific Glassblowing Laboratory, located in the basement of Lederle Graduate Research Center. While some researchers provide precise blueprints of the needed item, others make a rough sketch, with Williams and Landers suggesting modifications. The glassware needs to be made to exact specifications, often within a millimeter or two. And scientific glassware has different requirements than the bowls and other items crafted as artwork, according to Williams. Glass used in experiments has to withstand tremendous pressures, and must not contain any microscopic pinholes which could break a vacuum and ruin an experiment.

"Once the glass is hot, it’s fairly easy to control," Williams says. But the heat is extreme. Glass starts to flow at around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit; the torches used by the glassblowers produce flames that can reach 3,200 degrees. The glassblowers wear Kevlar gloves, similar to those worn by firefighters, and protective eyeglasses, which make the yellow-orange flames appear salmon-colored. While some items can be created in a day or two, others are long-term projects requiring weeks and even months. That doesn’t trouble Williams, who has worked as a glassblower at UMass since 1965, when he arrived on campus as an apprentice. "I love this job," he says. "I work with my hands and my head, and at the end of the day, I can see what I’ve accomplished. That’s a good feeling."