Books Made of Glass

By | October 1, 2015

Guest post by John Garrison

In an article last month in the journal 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, researchers from MIT describe breakthrough technology that allows a 3D printer to create glass objects. C|Net has a video of the printer in action. With 3D printing, no longer do “printers” solely imprint ink on paper. This new technology that lets us print glass is particularly intriguing because, as I describe in my new book, we’ve long thought of books as made of glass.

Certainly, digital readers already have changed our relationship to printed paper. Our books now come to us through the lens of the screens made from materials such as Corning’s creatively named “Gorilla Glass,” an aluminosilicate pane that is resistant to scratches and difficult to shatter. And when we access books through the Internet, we’re entering a world made of glass. The information that populates our screens is powered by circuit boards and a global wired network made from fiberglass. This material was created to replace failing copper wire in the phone system when we developed a form of clear glass that could carry light: fiber optics. Glass, in the form of fiber optic cable, connects the strands of the web that delivers digital text.

But, long before 3D printing and digital readers, we have connected books to glass. 

In the epilogue of George Gascoigne's long poem The Steele Glas (1576), he addresses his patron in an appeal for more financial support: “my lord, let shut the glass apace, / High time it were for my poor muse to wink,” and leaves open the promise that

But if my glass do like my lovely lord,

We will espy, some sunny summer’s day,

To look again, and see some seemly sights.

Gascoigne calls his book “my glass” to emphasize that it reflects his ideas and reflects his patron’s support. The patron, the poet, and the reader connect through the shared experience of gazing into the book.

Gascoigne is not alone in imagining a book operated like glass. In The Faerie Queene (1590), Edmund Spenser’s Merlin describes events to come in the narrative by peering into a crystal surface that appears “like to the world it selfe / and seemed a world of glass.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts on a play to “hold the mirror up to nature.”      

In my book Glass, I explore curious cases such as these — in examples from Gascoigne to Google, Milton to Minority Report, and Shakespeare to Star Trek. What emerges is a sense that authors as early as the Renaissance imagined many of the technological breakthroughs occurring now and depicted in contemporary science fiction.

The researchers at MIT describe their discovery as one that “lies at the intersection of design, engineering, science, and art.” As I explore in my book,glass as a material seems to inspire us to find such surprising intersections.


GlassJohn Garrison
is Associate Professor of English at Carroll University, USA. Prior to teaching, he helped develop technology and marketing innovations for  leading companies including Sony Electronics, Marvel Entertainment, and Warner Brothers Pictures. His latest book, Glass, is now available from Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series. 


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