“There are experiments you simply can’t do unless you
work with a glassblower.” —Jonathan Lindsey, chemistry professor
While his hands hold the flame and the glass, left, Wicker blows into a rubber tube to keep the internal pressure constant so that the glass does
not collapse while he is working on it. The photos, left below, show high vacuum valves, a glowing quartz tube and a glass vessel viewed through
a polar-scope. Quartz vessels and tubes are valued because they can withstand extremely high temperatures, which makes them more difficult
to work with. The polar-scope shows internal strains in the glass that can’t be seen by the naked eye.
work. Otherwise, the piece would have
to be sent to a commercial shop, where
the repair would take weeks and cost
hundreds of dollars.
Scientific glassblowers have quietly
facilitated many of the most important
scientific breakthroughs of modern
times, including the invention of the
lightbulb and the tubes used in the
first radios, TVs and computers. Today,
however, skilled glassblowers like Wicker
are disappearing as computer modeling
replaces hands-on lab work, companies
outsource lab work to China and India,
and university budgets tighten.
Wicker works just one day a week in a
small room on NC State’s campus, a far
cry from when the university employed
a full-time glassblower in a large, well-equipped shop. At some point before
Wicker was hired, the university moved
the shop from a large room downstairs
to a smaller one on the seventh floor.
Any equipment that wouldn’t fit into the
elevator, they got rid of, leaving Wicker
with an undersized lathe. Many of his
larger pieces must be completed at his
shop in Greensboro, N.C., where he
works the rest of the week.
Regardless, Wicker was a welcome
addition when he was hired in 2013. Before
he arrived, the glass shop had been shuttered for several years after the last glassblower left. During those years, Lindsey
says he often drove to East Carolina
University to work with the scientific
glassblower there. Now, graduate students
and professors can simply ride the elevator to Wicker’s shop on Mondays.
Wicker admits that his job is often
lonely, and comes with plenty of hazards.
He carries the scars of cuts and burns
all over his body. But he loves the puzzle
of putting together complex and flawless
pieces. “It’s like a mechanic,” he says,
“building a car from scratch.”
Kristin Collins is a freelance writer in Raleigh.
Masahiko Taniguchi, a research professor in the Department of Chemistry, works with a set
of linear tubes known as a “Schlenk line” that allows chemists to purge reactions of oxygen
so they can work under controlled atmospheric conditions. Below, Gongfang Hu, a graduate
student in chemistry, works with a photochemical chamber that Wicker had repaired.