Grant Platt, Scientific Glassblower at UNSW explains what scientific glassblowing is, and why he donates his money, time and effort to organisations, families and individuals in need.
How did you get into glassblowing?
In 1971 I went to Vocational Guidance in Christchurch looking for my first ‘real job’. I was told all the apprenticeships had gone except the job of scientific glassblowing at the University of Canterbury. After talking to the master glassblower, Frederick Downing, I said “I’ll have a go”, and I worked there throughout the 1970s gaining experience and knowledge in glassblowing techniques. Along the way, in the 1970s and 1980s, I also taught the history of glass & scientific glassblowing, worked at Cyclone Fences, joined the Territorials (Infantry, in the part time NZ army), commenced studying towards a Social Work degree, did crayfish fishing with pots, and worked in both Dalgety’s Wool Store and Feltex Carpets. However, I was soon drawn back to glassblowing and the creativity it offered and worked at Massey University, the ANU and UNSW as a scientific glassblower. I have worked at UNSW since 2008.
What skills do you need as a glassblower?
Glassblowing is partly art and partly technical knowledge and skill. It is often suggested to me that you must need strong lungs, but you don’t have to blow hard if the glass is heated sufficiently. The key is in even heating and rotation, and keeping control of the hot glass. It is important to ensure the glass is not heated too rapidly initially as it can shatter from heat shock.
At UNSW, I have a diverse clientele and am often asked to do glassware of both a common nature and weird and wonderful things. Glassblowing Workshop clients have included universities, research establishments, military research groups, hospitals, music schools, and businesses. Over four decades of scientific glassblowing working at four different universities, I have made diverse items such as condensers, thermometers, ship’s barometers, fractionating columns, Wood’s Horns for dangerous substances like beryllium, 3-stage high vacuum diffusion pumps (mercury and oil types), glass to glass and glass to metal seals, and ear suctions.
What is the most interesting thing you have made?
One of the most interesting items I worked on was hermit crab shells for the Botany Department at the University of Canterbury in the 1970s. I was asked to see if I could create clear glass shells so scientists could see what the crabs got up to. I developed a concept from scratch and wound small glass rod around a larger glass rod core in a spiral. Then I covered the spiral with a glass cover and tapered it down blowing as I went. I completed the shell with a sealed nose and an open shell mouth for the crabs to enter. The only trouble was the crab wouldn’t go in! It turned out that the crab wanted a shell spiralling in the opposite direction and so I modified the design and did what the crabs wanted. They then went happily into their new vitreous abode.
Do you interact with many other glassblowers?
I have been involved with a number of professional and artistic glassblowing organisations. Currently, I am a member of the Scientific Glassblowing Society of Australia and New Zealand (SGSANZ), the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers (BSSG) and the American Scientific Glassblowing Society (ASGS). As a work-alone scientific glassblower, I find there is a need to meet up with other glassblowers to keep abreast of glass technology developments.
Glassblowing symposiums have given me the ability to share with my peers and to enrich my life as well as to give to others. For many years at the ASGS symposiums, glassblowers were encouraged to make and give away glassblowing art for auctions where the proceeds would go to worthy charities. Of course, I have given away my art glass pieces and have nothing to show for it now. A few years ago I was looking at a possible summer glassblowing job in Alaska teaching passengers from cruise liners. The only problem was those hiring wanted to see my glass art work which had long gone previously. Still, I feel good for helping others.
Why did you decide to give to UNSW and what other organisations do you give to?
I am grateful for the times I have lived through and the support received when needed. Because of that, I assist individuals, charities and institutions of merit. I recognise that education is a social benefit for the community and not merely a personal benefit. I donate and I volunteer. My money has been directed to organisations such as the UNSW Workplace Giving Programme, NIDA, Headway (for brain-injured people), Cancer Council, Salvation Army, Sydney Heritage Fleet (SHF), Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), and family and friends who are hard up. Some of the organisations I have volunteered with include the Youth Hostel Association, Manawatu Museum, Electoral Reform Coalition New Zealand, Headway, the ANMM, Lions Club and both the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Sydney Heritage Fleet.
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