Glassblowers Continue an Old Trade

Monday, September 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RAHWAY, N.J. (AP) — In a small room at the back of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co.'s gleaming corporate campus, the 2,000-year-old art of glassblowing thrives.

The people working here aren't making globes or trinkets for tourists. Glassblowers Wayne Dockery and Harold Heimback work with scientists to create devices useful in developing the latest medicines.

They're part of a growing number of artisans — sought by the expanding pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector — who supply custom equipment to chemists, biologists and other laboratory scientists.

``I think there's an increasing number of people that would like to be glassblowers,'' said Dennis Briening, a glassblower employed by Salem Community College in Carneys Point, N.J., which offers the nation's only scientific glassblowing degree. ``And I think there's an increasing number of opportunities in glass.''

At the Merck shop, nearly every flat surface is covered with fireproof material, much of it blackened from years of exposure to open flames.

``It's hot enough to melt your buttons,'' said Dockery, adding that he's ruined several shirts that way. Or cause injury — Heimback, after 28 years in the trade, has visible scars and burns on his hands and forearms.

Like many glassblowing shops, the center of the room is dominated by a giant lathe that can hold pieces of glass several feet in diameter. On a recent day last month, the device spun slowly under steadily decreasing heat to allow it to cool without cracking.

Each year, Dockery, whose father ran the shop for three decades, and Heimback create and repair thousands of glass pieces for Merck scientists around the world. Many of the pieces are unique.

For example, the pair created an automated tick feeder and a flea counter for agricultural researchers.

The feeder allows scientists to nourish the insects without keeping a host animal in the lab. The counter, shaped like an hourglass, has a narrow ``waist'' which allows only a single flea to move through the passage at a time.

Part of the reason glassblowers are increasingly in demand is the growth in pharmaceutical and biotech industries. The tricky part is finding workers with the coordination and patience the job requires.

``It's an art, and not everyone realizes it's an art,'' said Bill Robbins, production manager at Kontes glassblowers in Vineland, N.J. ``Not everyone gets to the top.''

At the top of scientific glassblowing are custom glassblowers — the people who can take scientists' vague ideas for experiments and turn them into complex laboratory equipment.

``A lot of times, they're just blue-sky ideas,'' said the community college's Daryl Smith, a former Kontes glassblower.

There are an estimated 2,500 scientific glassblowers in the country. And while the more repetitious aspects of the trade have been automated, most glassblowers aren't afraid they will lose their jobs to machines.

``Philosophically, anything can be automated,'' Smith said, adding, ``You have companies that downsize. I've never seen them lay off a glassblower.''

Salem Community College is located in the heart of southern New Jersey, where glassblowing got its start in America. In the late 18th century, the pure sand in Salem and Cumberland counties drew glassblowers to set up shop.

The college admits about 20 students each year to its two-year program. After graduating, students begin at the bottom rung of glassblowing as lathe operators — production line work that requires making one item over and over.

``To attain top status, it takes eight to 10 years,'' Smith said.

A glassblower can remain a lathe operator or move on to custom work — either for a company that sells catalog and custom-designed glass, or for university and corporate laboratories.

Salaries vary widely. But, as Briening said, ``You can go to whatever level you aspire to.''


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