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The Future of Yesterday - Clothes of Glass?
Posted In: Technology Articles  3/21/12
By: Chris Capps

Futurists are sometimes notorious for getting their predictions a bit off at times.  In the past we've examined the possibilities of flying machines and lunar bases that were never destined to get off the ground, but after examining some archives of periodicals who made past prognostications, an issue from a very popular science magazine explored the astounding claims of "glass fiber" clothing made by a Pittsburg company in 1880 that may seem all too transparent to us today.

The periodical Scientific American has a long rich history of bringing the public up to date on the most recent developments of the scientific world.  And of course along with the discoveries themselves, the creators of these new contraptions have also shared their projections on the uses and impact these devices could have on society.  And there are hits and misses on that front.

But in the Scientific American Supplement number 259 of December 18, 1880 one company from Pittsburgh developed a means of crafting ultra-thin fibers of glass.  The firm that developed the means -Messrs. Atterbury & Co.- was known to create rods of glass only a half inch in diameter that could then be woven very similar to the fibers in a basket or fabric.  This idea of a fabric made of glass could be tinted to a variety of colors and allow for modesty by making it opaque - if it ever were crafted into a suit of armor-like clothing.

From there the samples were sent to both New York and Chicago where companies claimed to theoretically be able to fashion clothing from them.  It started with tablecloths and curtains, which refracted and reflected light in a vintage-futuristic looking anachronism of 1880's America.  But while the Pittsburg company was hopeful for applications of their new miracle material, the folks at the SA were characteristically careful about making any claims about a future of glass clothing to a world where modesty was still paramount.

But in its own way, glass fibers would eventually become a mainstay in industry - even if it never quite made it to the fashion runway - except perhaps in some avant garde circles.  Today it is used widely as a means of channeling ultraviolet light in through specially designed greenhouses.  The glass fibers have also been used to create fire resistant barriers in race cars where cloth would be inadvisable.

Why does this obscure story matter today?  Maybe it's just a bit of nostalgia leading back to a time no one truly was alive to witness today, or maybe it can tell us a bit about the technologies that are similarly emerging now.  Something as simple as a glass cloth was seen through the manufacturer's eyes of 1880 as a potential novelty for making a splash in the fashion industry, but it ended up being so much more.

What if we were to take this same model and apply it to other emerging technologies such as the unmanned aerial vehicle, computer chips that can be fastened to the human brain, and those cybernetic insects that can be controlled by remote?  While we can always speculate on where technology may one day take us, we can never truly know where it will head until it actually happens.  And that may end up surprising us all.


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