There are not too many scientific glassblowers out there anymore. My job is to manufacture the glassware that is used in the research labs here. We're not making beakers and test tubes, oh no. We're making coil condensers — big things with arms and valves and bulbs. You know the things you see in the background in the science-fiction movies with the mad scientist? That's what I make. I've been doing this for 39 years.
I do hundreds of pieces a week. Some of them take five minutes, some half an hour. I use glass tubing, all different diameters. Then I have various torches — different sizes for different types of work. The torches are 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. I pull a tube in half over the torch, or into thirds, down to a piece I can work with. I put it in the flame, rotate it steadily until it softens, then pull it into almost a spear point at one end.
Then I can put a rubber cork in the other end, with a tube coming out of it, and the tube goes in my mouth. When the glass softens, it takes just a little bit of air pressure to keep it from collapsing on itself. It's a puffing action. You have to rotate the tube at a steady rate — your hands have to work together or you'll get twisting — while you're blowing.
You have to think ahead as you're working. If you're playing an instrument, you look a couple of measures ahead. As I'm doing the glassblowing, I'm always looking ahead to the next step, the next seal, the next bend. I almost don't focus on what I'm working on. There's no turning back.
I don't save anything I make. It's funny: I make hundreds of pieces, but have nothing to show for it. Well, I made a cup one time. I got the gob of glass out of the oven and made a halfhearted attempt at a coffee cup, with a handle on the side. It came out a little short. I did save that.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.