[Image above] Credit: Liga Eglite; Flickr CC BY 2.0
Published on May 19th, 2014 | By: Eileen De Guire

Ceramics is ogreek200ne of the most ancient industries on the planet. Once humans discovered that clay could be dug up and formed into objects by first mixing with water and then firing, the industry was born. As early as 24,000 BC, animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials, then fired in kilns partially dug into the ground.

Almost 10,000 years later, as settled communities were established, tiles were manufactured in Mesopotamia and India. The first use of functional pottery vessels for storing water and food is thought to be around 9000 or 10,000 BC. Clay bricks were also made around the same time. The Chinese contribution to ceramic art however is one of uncontested brilliance. In terms of their sheer production, technical innovation, artistic refinement, aesthetic diversity and global impact, the Chinese can claim the world’s longest and foremost ceramic tradition. Pottery was valued in the Far East as elsewhere for its utility and relative affordability. Early on, however, the Chinese developed a heightened sense of aesthetic appreciation for ceramics that promoted the sensitivity to material, technical sophistication and stylistic range that define the classic wares of the Neolithic cultures, Bronze Age, T’ang (618-906), Sung, and Ch’in dynasties.

Glass was believed to be discovered in Egypt around 8000 BC, when overheating of kilns produced a colored glaze on the pottery. Experts estimate that it was not until 1500 BC that glass was produced independently of ceramics and fashioned into separate items.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, when the metal industry was in its infancy. Furnaces at that time for melting the metal were constructed of natural materials. When synthetic materials with better resistance to high temperatures (called refractories) were developed in the 16th century, the industrial revolution was born. These refractories created the necessary conditions for melting metals and glass on an industrial scale, as well as for the manufacture of coke, cement, chemicals, and ceramics.

Another major development occurred in the second half of the 19th century, when ceramic materials for electrical insulation were developed. As other inventions came on the scene-including automobiles, radios, televisions, computers-ceramic and glass materials were needed to help these become a reality, as shown in the following timeline.

Timeline of Selected Ceramic and Glass Developments

Year Development
24,000 B.C. Ceramic figurines used for ceremonial purposes
14,000 B.C. First tiles made in Mesopotamia and India
9000-10,000 B.C. Pottery making begins
5000-8000 B.C. Glazes discovered in Egypt
1500 B.C. Glass objects first made
1550 A.D. Synthetic refractories (temperature resistant) for furnaces used to make steel, glass, ceramics, cement
Mid 1800’s Porcelain electrical insulation
Incandescent light bulb
1920’s High-strength quartz-enriched porcelain for insulators
Alumina spark plugs
Glass windows for automobiles
1940’s Capacitors and magnetic ferrites
1960’s Alumina insulators for voltages over 220 kV
Application of carbides and nitrides
1970’s Introduction of high-performance cellular ceramic substrates for catalytic converters and particulate filters for diesel engines
1980’s High temperature superconductors


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