Science Under Glass

The unique properties of glass—transparency, heat resistance, nonreactivity, and malleability—have for centuries made it an essential laboratory material.

The National Museum of American History's laboratory glassware collection contains more than one thousand objects dating from the 17th century to the present day. Examining the collection reveals a broader story—both about the increasing professionalization and specialization of American science and about the importance of glass as a material for scientific investigation.

What makes glass uniquely suitable for science?

  • Transparent: allows observation of processes
  • Heat Resistant: will not expand or crack when heat is applied
  • Nonreactive: will not react with chemicals and other substances used in experiments
  • Malleable: can be formed in a variety of shapes to suit experiment

 

Astronomy professor Theodore E. Houck and an unidentified woman use a Kipp apparatus (at left) in a laboratory at the University of University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1940s

Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections

Kipp apparatus gas generator

Designed in 1844 by Dutch pharmacist Petrus Jacobus Kipp and first built by physicist and master glassblower Heinrich Geissler, the Kipp apparatus produced small batches of gas for laboratory use. The gas resulted from a chemical reaction between a solid and a liquid which was contained and controlled within the stacked glass globes.