Working to perfection

February 19, 2004, vol.29, no.4
By Roberta Staley

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Creating an elaborate glass apparatus for a complex chemistry experiment seems, on the surface, as antithetical to making a gun as peacekeeping is to an invasion.

However, in Bruce Harwood's case, both are different sides of the same coin. Creating a unique glass formation for mixing potentially dangerous chemicals - or helping craft firearms, as he did as a youth - requires the patience of Job, the eye of a diamond cutter, and the precision of an Olympic gymnast.

“I work in a zero-defects environment,” says Harwood, who came to the SFU chemistry department last December from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, as the new scientific glassblower. “People's lives depend upon what I do.”

Exaggeration? Not really, says Harwood, who was influenced as a youth by his father and grandfather, both gunsmiths in the farmlands of southern Ontario. “I was reared with the notion of precision craftsmanship and that if you did something wrong, somebody could get hurt,” says Harwood, who also became a keen marksman and skeet shooter. “You can't make a mistake when dealing with an explosive shell, so the idea of safety is always in the forefront.”

Harwood did not follow in paternal footsteps. Rather, he attended the University of Guelph, majoring in Asian studies. Not a stellar academic, Harwood committed himself to a five-year apprenticeship in scientific glassblowing at the university under the direction of Anne Hostetter, the only woman glassblower in Canada. “I had no real notion what I was getting into, but it turned out to be fortuitous,” says Harwood. The standard of perfection he was inculcated with while growing up, as well as his marksman's keen eye, turned out to be ideal for this exacting craft.

Glass working is almost as ancient as civilization. It is believed to have begun in the Bronze Age, before 1100 BCE, possibly in present day Lebanon. The Egyptians first learned how to blow glass in the first century BCE. The basic ingredients - fire, sand, lime, and sodium carbonate - are still used today.

Like other ancient crafts such as carpet weaving, glassblowers constitute a tiny fraternity of highly skilled artisans. Harwood, who is SFU's only glassblower, says there are 1,500 in North America, 100 of them in Canada. He says this link with ancient peoples is part of the attraction. “I can look at a piece of 17th century glass and realize I am part of a family.”

Harwood says the bulk of his work is taken up ensuring SFU's undergraduate laboratories are stocked with such basics as flasks, beakers, condensers and simple vacuum tubes. He also repairs broken glassware, which can cost upwards of $300 each. It is at the graduate level, however, that Harwood can express his artistry. Gathering his tools on a mobile cart - torches and borosilicate tubing - Harwood will go to a laboratory to finesse a glass apparatus in situ, since the structures are so elaborate and delicate they can't be moved once made. It is a close collaboration, with the graduate student describing how and where he or she needs the chemicals or gases to mix. Harwood works according to the student's specifications, although it “sometimes goes through three or four alterations before it is exactly right.”

Harwood, who makes wine glasses to give to friends as gifts, as well as miniature glass dinosaurs, has noted a tendency for science glassware to become smaller. “Where students once used 1,000 milliliters of chemical in an experiment, now they use one milliliter.” This is one of the reasons SFU now has only one science glassblower, whereas there used to be five when the university first opened 40 years ago.

But the trend towards smaller hasn't diminished the complexity of the job. Rather, it makes it more demanding, says Harwood, who may start teaching glassblowing courses at SFU.

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