In Steven Johnson’s national bestseller, How We Got to Now, which later became a television series, Johnson explores the history of six innovations and their unintended historical consequences on society. Johnson's six innovations that changed the way we lived are light, time, clean, sound, cold, and the most influential, according to Johnson, glass.
Marshall McLuhan agrees with Johnson on the importance of glass, which is included in his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy. In both books, the invention of the printing press is noted as the start of a butterfly effect of innovation, centered on the use of glass. Basically, even though we were manufacturing and using glass long before the printing press came to be, the sudden and rapid spread of literacy shed light on a common condition among the population: farsightedness.
This realization resulted in a surge of eyeglass production, as more and more people had access to cheaper, portable reading material, and created a new market for glass manufacturing and technology. Less than 100 years later, eyeglasses became a piece of technology that common people could afford, and advance even further, which lead to the ongoing perfection in lens manufacturing and uses in astronomy, navigation, science, and much more.
Still, glass is a little boring on the surface, and after centuries of daily use it's become so ubiquitous that most of us simply ignore the technology. But others, like Corning, the company most commonly known for its cookware, are here to remind us again of the great properties this ancient technology can offer to us, and continue to improve it in innovative ways.
Corning gives us a glimpse of its vision for the future glass in a promotional video, touting its uses in fiber communications, fashion, computing, architecture, energy conservation, space exploration, art, health, medical fields and more. The company is calling this technological breakthrough the Glass Age.
Corning isn't new to innovative glass technology. Along with its well known cookware, the company has made cathode ray tubes for televisions, light bulbs for Thomas Edison, the glass mirrors for the Hubble telescope, and the glass for iPhone touch screens.
In Corning’s Glass Age, touch screens are everywhere; mirrors, wall, cars, bathrooms, appliances, windows that control the amount of light that comes through, and really anything associated with the Internet of Things. And the company recently introduced Gorilla Glass 6, said to be the toughest mobile phone cover glass available and designed to withstand multiple drops. According to Corning, Gorilla Glass 6 survived 15 drops from 1 meter onto hard surfaces — a standard that could last the lifetime of a device, or at least two years.
Corning is also developing glass to be used on the backs of phones. New designs for Apple and Samsung have glass that curves around the edges and covers the entire back of the devices. The glass back reportedly provides better wireless charging, larger screens with smaller bezels and customization options. It's also scratch resistant, has better clarity, and enhanced touch sensitivity.
“We’re seeing glass on the back [of mobile phones] because glass supports wireless charging and high data rates like 5G," John Bayne, general manager of Corning's Gorilla Glass Business, said at a July 2018 press event. "Metal is on the wrong side of the technology curve.”
We often take ancient technologies like glass for granted, but try imagine what one day without it would be like. Lenses, mirrors, circuit boards and communications are but a fraction of the uses of this technology, which has advanced side-by-side with our most popular and revered innovations for decades, and in many cases enables them to work.
With the arrival of the redesigned glass back mobile phones, this semiotic relationship will continue far into the future.
Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.