…there can be no light switch, for there is no glass for the light bulb…There are no contact lenses or spectacles to help us.
There is no clear mirror in the bathroom to shave by, no bottles of ointment or glass for our toothbrush. There is no television in the living room, for with no screen it cannot exist. When we look out of the windows we see no cars, buses, trains or aeroplanes, for without windscreens none of them can operate (and they almost certainly have not been developed anyway). The shops in town have no window displays…
…There would almost certainly be no electricity, since its first generation depended on gas or steam turbines, which required glass for their development…Our fields would produce less than one twentieth of their current yield without the fertilisers discovered by chemists using glass tools…Telescopes, microscopes and spectacles let us see the distant and the near in ways which the human eye unaided cannot do.
From The Glass Bathyscaphe, by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin (these links on the authors are more interesting than usual), a distinguished historian and an industrial expert on glass, note that Martin is also Macfarlane’s patron.
The authors examine twenty critical experiments that changed our world, chosen at random, fifteen of them could not have been performed without glass. For largely accidental reasons, glass manufacture was rising in the West while it was declining in China, Japan, and the Islamic world. Better use of glass, and better science, led to a spiral of technological improvements that enabled the rise of modern science and the Industrial Revolution. Here is a short summary article by Macfarlane.
The authors offer an on-line essay on glass in India. Here are some film clips on the importance of glass in history. Here are press reviews of the book. The authors are properly subtle and qualify their thesis in the required ways, the book is also well-written and entertaining, recommended reading.