Heart of Glass

Woldemar Weyl’s research on the properties of glass led to better everyday materials.

A 1930s view of the ceramics lab in Steidle Building, where Weyl conducted much of his early research. Credit: All photos: Penn State University ArchivesAll Rights Reserved.

photo of woman standing on glass that is bending under her weight

Weyl and his associates helped to develop flexible, high-strength auto glass. As seen here, the glass—one-tenth of an inch thick—bends but does not break.

He earned worldwide fame as a founder of the modern science of glass. He was among the first Penn State faculty to take an interdisciplinary approach to studying materials science. And he was ahead of his time in advocating an alliance between private industry and academia in supporting basic research.

He was Woldemar Weyl, who for 30 years was a teacher and researcher in what is today the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Born in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1901, Weyl became head of glass research at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Silica Research (later part of the Max Planck Institutes) at age 25. By the time he left the institute in 1936, he had authored a monograph, Coloured Glasses, that received international praise as the first definitive review of the modern theories on the structure and constitution of glasses.

In 1936, with the Nazi regime in full control of the German government, Weyl accepted a visiting professorship at Penn State. He returned to his homeland the following year to wrap up his affairs, and resumed teaching and research at Penn State in the fall of 1938. He became a U.S. citizen five years later.

Glass had long attracted attention from both basic scientists and applied technologists, but their investigations rarely intersected. Weyl dreamed of creating a glass institute where the two groups could collaborate to advance knowledge. In 1943 he won approval for the formation of Glass Science Inc., a cooperative at Penn State whose members included such well known industry giants as Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Corning Glass, and Pittsburgh Plate Glass. It was the first such entity of its kind anywhere in the U.S. It was also short-lived. Based on issues unrelated to Glass Science, the federal government initiated anti-trust action against some of the member firms. The firms then withdrew from the collaboration for fear that the government might use their research partnerships to strengthen the case against them in court. Glass Science was dissolved in 1947, but all of its research was published and a number of patents based on the research were assigned to the public.

Woldemar Weyl

Weyl as a visiting professor at Penn State in 1936

Weyl was undeterred. He soon developed a relationship with the Office of Naval Research for long-term support of investigations into glass structure and properties. In the mid-1950s he led the way for Penn State to establish another formal private-sector collaboration, this one with the Glass Container Industry Research Corporation, a consortium of 20 or so container manufacturers.

In 1960 Penn State established the Evan Pugh Professorships, its highest form of recognition for those faculty whose research or creative work had received international distinction, and who mentored graduate students who also later contributed in important ways to scholarship in their respective fields. Weyl was one of the first two honorees, as Evan Pugh Professor of Glass Technology. (The other was Haskell Curry, who—like Weyl—was a living legend in his discipline, mathematics.)

As Evan Pugh Professor, Weyl co-authored a multi-volume landmark work, The Constitution of Glasses: A Dynamic Interpretation, with Penn State colleague Evelyn Marboe. Weyl retired from the faculty in 1968 and died at his home in State College in 1975.

Weyl’s basic research into the chemistry and physics of glass yielded discoveries that ultimately had numerous practical applications. To name a few:

  • Stronger, more durable kinds of glass used in everything from telescope lenses to tumblers, from spectacles to insulators;
  • Magnasite refractories used to line large glass-melting tanks that were more resistant to the destructive effects of molten glass—better ceramics to make better glass;
  • Glass that was less brittle and subject to minute cracking, less vulnerable to discoloration by sunlight;
  • Glass more suitable for fluorescent lighting;
  • Glass for milk bottles and other recycled food containers that better withstood the negative effects of detergents and other chemical agents used in the washing process;
  • Commercial use of lithium to make stronger yet lighter weight glass for television picture tubes.

In addition to his research, Weyl helped to lay a robust foundation for academic-private sector partnerships at Penn State. The University now typically ranks second or third nationally in annual research support received from industry ($108 million from more than 400 companies in FY 2011).

man pouring molten glass into moldsMolten glass is poured into molds to create samples for Glass Science Inc. experiments, 1946.

By all accounts he was also a brilliant teacher and loved being in the classroom as much as in the lab. “He was devoted to the education of his undergraduate and graduate students and was a spellbinding lecturer,” recalled Marboe.

As a teacher and a researcher, he valued an interdisciplinary approach that shunned artificial boundaries between academic departments. Geoscientist Elburt Osborn, who later became dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, remembered that “Dr. Weyl and I worked very closely together—my research being in the geological sciences and his being in ceramics…We were able to very easily go across boundaries, using very often the same research equipment, having students from different departments taking courses in each of our fields. For example, in my graduate course I had just about as many students from ceramics as I had in the geological sciences.”

That spirit of collaboration is highly prized and encouraged at Penn State today, reflected across the institution in such interdisciplinary entities as the Materials Research Institute, the Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences, and the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

Last Updated November 01, 2012