Breathing Life into Science

If Daryl Smith had his way, he’d be in space. For a glassblower like Smith, the allure of life on an orbiting satellite isn’t the view or the freeze-dried ice cream; it’s the lack of gravity. Glassblowing revolves around a simple law: hot, softened glass flows down. When working on a spherical flask, for instance, Smith must continuously rotate his work to keep it from sagging under its own weight like a gum bubble. For complex shapes like the long, corkscrew pipes that fit inside of condensers, he may need to work in stages, giving each curl time to cool and harden before he moves on to the next. This understanding of the material could change drastically in the weightlessness of space. Corkscrews might coil around and around without collapsing. Blown spheres could retain their shapes without rotation, like water droplets. Designs like spider webs that would be near impossible on Earth could become as easy to produce as test tubes or marbles. The scientific glassblower could glide like Peter Pan through a tangle of molten glass strands, twisting tubes of borosilicate into intricate designs. “I just think that would be really, really cool. But you know, I’m 58 now,” Smith says with a chuckle. “They better hurry up!” While he waits for NASA to get its act together, he’ll have to settle for the cluttered confines of Yale’s Scientific Glass Shop. 

The two-man shop is at once a studio and a gallery. Completed filter funnels and round-bottom flasks compete for space on every shelf like heirlooms on a mantelpiece. Open drawers reveal bundles of glass tubes and joints, which will eventually be formed into Schlenk flasks or chromatography columns. Neat, machine-printed labels classify tubs of ace threads, flanges, valves, roto flasks, torch components. All around the room, metal buckets full of glittering scrap glass take the place of trash cans. A workbench dominates one wall, buried beneath glass bulbs, tweezers, and printed schematics for Smith’s five-student glassblowing course. Across from the workbench is some heavy machinery. An annealing oven, which relieves stresses placed on glass during the rapid heating and cooling. Two massive lathes, used for rating large tubes and unwieldy fixtures, are the centerpieces of the room. By the door, a calendar displays a modified 1946 Willys Jeep as the vehicle of the month. Immediately adjacent is a bulletin board, empty aside from a scrap of paper that reads: “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.”

Smith’s own workspace is a big square table in the corner covered with glass tubing. In a short-sleeved industrial work shirt and worn jeans, he is the quintessential technician. His safety glasses, personalized with clip-on reader lenses, are held in place with a black elastic band. He spends his days at the table, opposite his son and assistant, Preston. Father and son make up the entirety of the shop’s staff. As both men work intently at their glassblowing torches, twin flames dance in the violet lenses of their safety glasses.

Smith is a man who knows a lot about fire. With one hand, he adjusts his torch, tweaking the ratio of methane and oxygen. In his other hand, he holds a glass spider with delicate needle legs and a body like a shooter marble. The glittering arachnid is a decorative piece in need of a simple repair. Smith twists a knob, increasing the flow of oxygen to his torch, and a guttering, orange-yellow flame becomes a hissing blue jet. He works by sight and sound alone. 

Once the fuel mixture is to his liking, he moves the spider carefully into the flame, rotating it to ensure even heating. With his free hand, he picks up a glass hook, placing its tip in the fire as well. After a moment, the hook end melts to the body of the spider. Smith removes the newly joined pieces and pulls his hands apart. The still-molten connection stretches like chewing gum. As color fades from the glass, Smith holds up the finished creation, which dangles from the hook at the end of a crystalline thread. Overhead, a speaker plays Smith’s Pandora station. The spider sways to the beat of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” 

Smith and his son specialize in much more than decorative spiders. Factory-produced test tubes and flasks may be readily available but, in many cases, Yale researchers require pieces that are a little more specialized. That’s where Smith comes in. The customers who visit the glass shop are looking for everything from test tubes of unique diameters to one-of-a-kind refluxing columns with specialized outlet joints. They don’t come away empty-handed. According to Julia Curley, GRD ’21, a 4th year graduate student at one of Yale’s inorganic chemistry labs, the glassblower has a catchphrase. “If you ask if he can make something, he’ll say, ‘Is it made of glass?’” Smith’s confidence extends well beyond Yale’s campus. The shop ships pieces to nearly a dozen different universities, sending stopcock adapters and distillation heads to the University of Connecticut, Vanderbilt, the University of Rhode Island, and even the Coast Guard Academy. 

When it comes to collaborating with researchers, Smith is a perfect fit. “It’s a lot of just getting stuff done, and figuring it out, doing things efficiently,” his son, Preston Smith, tells me. Still, customers who come to Smith find him not only experienced, but excited to work with lab staff to design the perfect apparatus for their needs. Nick Smith (no relation), a 5th year graduate researcher, recalls being impressed at how responsive the glassblower was. “He is incredibly and intimately familiar with just about anything that’s a standard scientific apparatus.” “He’s the type of person who, if you get introduced to him once, he’ll remember your name forever,” Curley says. 

For Daryl Smith, the most satisfying work has always been with his hands, even before it involved a torch. He graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in aquaculture (“Y’know, fish farming?” Smith clarifies) and spent a year working a fish lift at the Conowingo Dam on the Lower Susquehanna River in Maryland. When he found himself competing for fishery jobs, he decided to return to college for a master’s degree. Researching possible schools, he caught wind of the scientific glass program at Salem Community College in southern New Jersey, the only one of its kind to this day. Drawn by the opportunity to work with his hands and play with fire, Smith never looked back.  “At the end of the day, you can see the results of your labor.” He gestures to a cluster of flasks balanced on top of the nearby annealing oven. “It’s an absolute: ‘Here’s what I did, here’s my worth in the world, take a look. It’s right there.”

For ten years, Smith made his way through a series of industry manufacturing companies in Pennsylvania and Delaware. He burned through his apprenticeship, completing the requisite eight thousand hours in less than four years. “It was a lot of overtime,” he laughs.

Their house at the time was built in the late 1800s, with an accompanying barn. The barn would become Smith’s home workshop, and it’s where his son, Preston, learned the craft. As a child, Preston learned to tinker with glass bulbs and tubes, making rudimentary baubles and toys.  “He used to take a rod and make little miniature golf clubs out of it,” his father remembers. It was the elder Smith’s first experience as an instructor. 

In 1995, after attending a presentation by Kontes Glass at a local glassblowers’ meeting, Smith joined the company, and the family moved to the “Glass Triangle”— southern New Jersey, the heart of the American glassblowing industry. It was a big transition in more than just location. Compared to Smith’s earlier shops, Kontes was a manufacturing behemoth, with hundreds of employees and the work separated across specialty departments. In those days, no news was good news. “We joked that if you send it out, if it doesn’t come back, it’s okay,” he recalls. “You only hear anything when something’s not right.” He stayed with Kontes for five years, ending up as a lamproom supervisor. 

In 2000, Smith learned that the instructional chair position for the Salem Community College glassblowing program was available. For another five years, he taught future glassblowers in the very same school that kick-started his career. And while he left the community college to work at Yale in 2005, teaching has remained a part of his life.As the instructor of Yale’s Introduction to Scientific Glassblowing course, Smith teaches by example. 

Situated behind one of the torches at the shop’s long workbench, he heats a length of glass tubing and blows into one end. Five chemistry grad students observe over his shoulder. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid plays on the stereo, just audible over the hiss of the torch flames. When Smith blows, the dimly glowing glass bubbles out into a blister, which he lances with a hand tool. “Don’t put this in the fire a lot, because it does fume,” he says, nodding at the tool. 

He flicks the glass from the blister into a can of cullet. The film-thin snippet of glass is still hot enough that it sizzles against the other scraps in the can. Smith shows the students how to round off the edges of the hole left behind by the blister. “It’s that simple,” he says. The students chuckle.

Watching Smith teach underscores the extreme level of care and specialization that an on-site scientific glassblower provides to a university. As the students get to work on their own projects—today’s assignment is a t-hose connection for rubber tubing—their beginner efforts only serve to make Smith’s own comfort with manipulating glass all the more apparent. And as questions arise, Smith always has an answer. “He’s incredibly familiar with any type of glassware that you could need for any particular function,” his student Julia Curley says. “If you tell him that you’re doing a reaction that produces a gas, he’ll immediately know that you can’t have it be a sealed reaction vessel because it would build up pressure.” 

Like most faculty and staff, Smith includes a signature at the end of every email he sends. It contains his official title, department, address, and contact information. And at the very end, there’s a quote: “If not for glass, science would be blind.” Over the course of his thirty-three-year career, Smith has contributed a lot to research. He’s crafted NMR tubes to contain spectroscopy samples. He’s sculpted pedestals for brain specimens at the Yale School of Medicine and made replicas of ducks’ corkscrew reproductive systems out of coiled glass tubes. He’s worked with researchers at the CERN supercollider to produce quartz rods for sensors detecting Cherenkov light. Without scientific glassblowers like Smith, it seems science would be lacking much more than just sight. 

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