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The Art and Science of Glassblowing: The Career of Robert McLeod

Robert McLeod is the current Chairman of the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers and recently retired from working as a scientific glassblower at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre based in East Kilbride. The main purpose of his job was to provide a professional, highly specialist glassblowing service to support a wide variety of research and other activities carried out at the centre. Robert started training as a scientific glassblower with I.C.I, a company that is no longer in existence, based at Ardeer Stevenson. He initially joined the company to become a lab technician but when offered a position in the glassblower’s workshop he couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with glass.

“I have been working with glass for forty-eight years, and I’m still learning.“

Currently many students are drawn to scientific research by its wonderful range of glassware, in all its fabulous shapes from cones, spheres, coils and flasks of all different shapes and sizes. All fragile, yet robust enough to be heated directly in a flame, carry boiling liquids and noxious gases. Possibly, and more crucially glass is transparent so that scientist can observe what is happening as their experiment unfolds. The properties of chemical resistance and inertness along with thermal shock resistance, optical properties, electrical insulation, and a surface that is scratch and abrasion resistant keep glass at the bases of cutting-edge technology.

While scientific glassblowers were once employed in laboratories to support research this changed when new innovations equipment wise and cheaper glass eliminated the need. But new fields create new opportunities. Researchers working on carbon-based polymers, for example, have opened new fields of study that require the skill of a scientific glassblower to make the necessary break throughs. As these advancements continue, a skill that can be traced back to ancient Egyptians, will evolve into a highly specialised profession capable of adapting to these new and changing industries.

The world would be a vastly different place without the presence of glass. It’s the material that enables you to see clearly through the eyeglasses perched on your face, provides illumination through the light bulbs in your home, and offers a glimpse of the world outside through your windows. Remarkably, there exists an almost boundless diversity of glass compositions, with one database cataloguing over 35,000 distinct types of glass. Glass, more than any other substance, has played an integral role in shaping our world. Robert, drawing from his experience as a scientific glassblower, underscores the profound satisfaction that comes with crafting specialized laboratory equipment from this versatile material, equipment that continues to expand the horizons of scientific research.

Robert McLeod working with Glassblowing equiptment
Robert McLeod working with Glassblowing equiptment
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