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  October 9, 2000

Glassblower Deploys Creative
Skills in Service of Science

His creations will never be seen in a SoHo gallery. Some people at the University have never even heard of him.

But Allan Brown isn't looking for applause. The thousands of delicately crafted glass objects he has fashioned for the University in the past 33 years speak for themselves.

As UConn's scientific glass blower, Brown designs one-of-a-kind items for the University's researchers: items they cannot find in supply catalogs, cabinets or research laboratories; items that do not exist.

"I'll make whatever your imagination can dream up," says Brown, director of the Technical Services Center. "Devices to incubate rat embryos, glassware to grow seaweed; or bowls to collect rainwater in the Pacific off the Alaskan coast. If it's glass you're looking for, I'll make it." He'll also repair broken items or add new parts.

The glassblowing shop serves hundreds of faculty and graduate students in pharmacy, chemistry, physics, marine sciences, biology, medicine, engineering and materials science. Projects have ranged from making microelectrodes for electrochemical studies to fashioning a vacuum tube containing various grades of glass for superconductivity experiments. Brown has shaped glass ranging anywhere from three or four millimeters to three liters in size and 36 inches around. "We run the whole gamut," he says. He does his work by hand, using a lathe for larger articles.

Sun pours through the windows in the spacious glassblowing shop. Located in the technical services building at the Depot campus, the shop has a "hot" room for blowing glass and a separate area or "wet" room where glass may be cut, ground, or cleaned. The Technical Services Center also offers theft-security installation, electronics and computer, mechanical, and office equipment repair services.

Glass beakers, vials and tubing dot the array of counters, and cartons scattered on the floor hold assortments of broken glassware. "Most of this can be repaired," he says, poking through one of the boxes.

Professors and graduate students meet with Brown at the glass shop to discuss their special research needs. "We sit down and figure out what you're trying to do. We'll design something, I'll make a prototype, and if it works I'll make as many as you want," he says.

Some people bring in their own drawings of what they want made. "This is a real good one," Brown says, pointing to a sketch covered with figures. It was drawn by a graduate student in chemical engineering.

He likens his work to that of an architect: discussions with clients about projects, pencil sketches, ideas, custom design work. In fact, Brown wanted to be an architect. But the eldest of four boys had no choice: his father was a glassblower and he would carry on the tradition. Back in the 1930s, Brown's father was the first American scientific glassblowing apprentice at DuPont's Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del. Up until that time, scientific glassblowers were mostly imported from Europe.

Taught by his father, 13-year-old Brown learned the trade and mastered the craft.

"The way it was explained to me when I was younger was that everybody can learn to play the piano. Everybody can learn to blow glass. Only a few will become concert pianists and only a few are going to be good glass blowers," he says. "It's the same kind of training: it's very rigorous, it's very time consuming, it's very repetitious and you have to train your hands to work together and separately."

But Brown enjoys his work. "It's fun. It's very rewarding," he says. "The fun is the challenge of making things that haven't been made before."

In June, Brown, who has published more than 30 articles on scientific glassblowing in national and international journals and has given presentations on the subject around the world, received the J. Allan Alexander Award from the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the profession.

Brown sits at his bench burner ready for today's challenge. Graphites, reamers, paddles, tweezers and tungsten picks are ready for work. But is Brown? Sporting khaki slacks and an oxford shirt, except for his special glasses he hardly looks like someone who will work with temperatures of 1,600 C.

He puts a piece of glass tubing through the burner's blue flame, now a fiery orange as the sodium and boron burn off the glass. "Glass is a poor conductor of heat. Your hands don't get hot," Brown says.

Carefully, delicately, he rotates the tube so it heats evenly. "If I don't, it will be lopsided," he explains. Gravity will pull it down. The glass looks like taffy. In an instant, it hardens. He has made a handle to hold on to. He snaps it with a knife of tungsten carbide steel and makes a hole at the end so he can blow through it.

"When glass is hot enough, it's easy to blow," he explains. "It's kind of like blowing bubble gum: When you first start to blow it, it's hard to get it started." Moments later, Brown breathes shape into glass. And it's like magic.

Sherry Fisher

This article is the first in an occasional series featuring members of the University whose work supports the institution's mission of teaching, research and outreach but whose story is little known. We welcome suggestions for future articles in this series. Please contact the Editor at (860) 486-3530 or by e-mail: