Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

14. Early Scientific Applications and the Role of Pottery Manufacturers

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14.1 Introduction

Because the discovery of pottery well preceded the discovery of metals, it meant that the use of pottery vessels as high-temperature or refractory crucibles permitted or at least accelerated the development of man’s technology through the Bronze and Iron ages. Evidence exists in Iran and Eastern Europe of simple shallow clay crucibles from 5/6th Millennium BC that were used to smelt copper by heating from above with blowpipes. Some from a little later have been found in Jordan with handles. This could be considered to be the earliest use of ceramics for scientific or “industrial” purposes.

Egyptian crucibles, Old Kingdom rough brown pottery and another, Dynasty 18, with copper slag inside UC 17547 and 8901 - Copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

Egyptian crucibles, Old Kingdom rough brown
pottery and another, Dynasty 18,
with copper slag inside UC 17547 and 8901
- Copyright of the Petrie Museum of
Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

The growth of technology over the past 10,000 years may be depicted as being made up of two periods of relatively rapid development, the development of pottery and metals starting 10,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution over the past 250 or so years. Clearly the pace of technology growth has accelerated over the past 50 years because of the electronic/information age.

Cones to support vessels in kiln, Ptolemaic Egypt UC 47319 - Copyright of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

Cones to support vessels in kiln,
Ptolemaic Egypt UC 47319 - Copyright of the
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

Early industrial uses of ceramics in potteries were kiln supports such as props and small cones, possibly to support lids, while saggers date from the end of the 15th century. These were made of higher-temperature-resistant clay bodies (fireclay).

The use of pottery and glass for more general, early, scientific applications dates from medieval times. Earthenware pots were used to make chemicals such as white lead and vermilion. Advances in ceramics led to improved products such as crucibles used for higher melting-point metal alloys, as well as mortars and pestles, and examples of these have been found at kiln sites.

From the 16th century pottery and glass distillation equipment was used to make mineral acids that were primarily for assaying precious metals, although the original technique dated back to the 14th century. Alcohol was also distilled, and stills were used in alchemy (early scientific/magical research). Majolica jars for the storage of chemicals were common in Mediterranean countries. Early glass uses included spectacle lenses.

18<sup>th</sup> century majolica drug jars” source Antiques Reporter

18th century majolica drug jars
- source Antiques Reporter

In Britain, the 18th century was the great “Age of Experimentation” and the pottery industry occupied the position that electronics and aerospace do today. The Industrial Revolution started in the Potteries. Josiahs Wedgwood and Spode pushed forward not only the technology but also the economic growth of the country. Wedgwood rationalised the pottery industry, initiated the division of labour and improved his worker’s living standards. He applied scientific methods to his experiments, introduced business methods, corresponded with foreign customers in their own language and obtained help from British embassies to promote trade.

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