Read about the latest glass related events, exhibitions and fairs.
Find out about the benefits of joining the Glass Association.
Glass Gallery
Visit our glass gallery to learn more about different types of glass.

Uranium Glass

By Barrie Skelcher

To the general public the word uranium is synonymous with nuclear weapons, nuclear power stations and radioactivity. But the term uranium glass, to the collector, will always be associated with that oily, yellow-green, transparent medium known colloquially as Vaseline glass. However, this is only part of the story.

The chemistry textbooks tell us that uranium was discovered by the German chemist, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, in 1789, which is perhaps a simplification of the truth. The element was named after the planet Uranus and what Klaproth reported to the Royal Prussian Academy of Science in that year was uranium oxide, which he had separated from the heavy, black mineral known as pitchblende. The element itself was not isolated until 1841, but this did not stop it from being used in glassmaking.

The chemistry of uranium is somewhat complex as it has several valency states. It is also amphoteric, being able to act as either a base or an acid. Hence we can have such compounds as uranium nitrate or sodium diuranate. This must have made life somewhat bewildering for the early 19th century glassmakers, especially as the chemists of those years had only a very crude understanding of molecular compositions.

Plate 1
Plate 1:
Selection of late 19th and early 20th century wineglasses, all coloured by uranium.

Perhaps this is why in the surviving batch books of those days we find such loose terminology. For example in a Whitefriars batch book of 1832, on the same page we see the terms “Saltpetre” and “Nitre” used in adjacent recipes when they were in fact the same compound, i.e. potassium nitrate. In other books we see recipes using the term “lead”, “litharge”, “red lead” and even “lead or litharge”. We now understand that these are not the same compounds; while litharge contains about 93% lead, red lead may only have as little as 90% of the element. Much the same applies in the early recipes to uranium. Sometimes the word is “uranium”; at other times it is “uranium oxide”. Will they be referring to U3O8, which predominates in pitchblende, UO3 that occurs in becquerelite, “uranium yellow” which is an intermediate stage in the processing of pitchblende and is sodium diuranate, or even orange uranium, which is potassium diuranate? The percentage of the element uranium in these will vary from as much as 85% to 64%. All this adds to the areas of uncertainty as we unravel the use of uranium in glassmaking over the past 150 years.

But who first thought of using uranium to colour glass? Some authors give the honour to Josef Riedel at his glassworks in Bohemia in the 1830s. It may be that he was the first to produce uranium coloured glass in quantity with his Annagrun and Annagelb - green and yellow glasses named after his wife - but it is unlikely that he was the first to add Klaproth’s discovery to sand and alkali. We know from records held by the Museum of London that Whitefriars used uranium colouring in 1836. There is good reason to believe that the British scientist, William Vernon Harcourt, started experimenting with glass compositions in 1834. He did not publish his work but it would appear that by 1861 his work had included uranium. There are reports of a uranium glass beaker cut with a portrait of the famous German poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller. He died in 1805 and it is thought this beaker commemorates the 20th anniversary of his death, as it is inscribed with the date 1825. Between 1800 and 1809, Thomas Cock, brother-in-law of P.N. Johnson of Johnson Matthey, working at the laboratory of William Allen at Plough Court in Lombard Street, studied the extraction of uranium oxide and its application to the colouring of glass. An early English reference to uranium in glass also comes from C. S. Gilbert’s Historical Survey of Cornwall (1817). He devotes sixty pages to Mineralogy and Mining and mentions a number of elements used in glass manufacture. With regard to uranium he states: “Its oxides impart bright colours to glass, which are, according to the proportions, brown, apple green, or emerald green”. From all this we conclude that the colouring properties of uranium were known early in the 19th century, but it was not until the second quarter of the century that it was marketed.

Notwithstanding the foregoing there are suggestions that uranium was used by the Romans. The story revolves around a find near Naples in 1912. A sample of a green Roman mosaic was brought back to England and analysed at Oxford University. It was reported to contain uranium. For a more detailed account, the reader is referred to Caley’s Analysis of Ancient Glasses, 1790-1957, A Comprehensive and Critical Survey, Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York 1962. There are good reasons for suspecting the findings of the Oxford scientists to be fallacious. For example, if uranium oxide had been deliberately used by the Romans, from where would they have obtained it? It is hardly likely that a budding Roman geologist, after globe trotting round the world, clutching a bag of strange earth, would have rushed up to the glassmaker as he was about to make the melt for his tesserae and say “hey, try putting this in your mix”. If that did happen, why was it not repeated and how come the discovery was lost for the next two millennia? Until the measurement is repeated, I remain sceptical about this claim.

My opinion is that it is unlikely that any one person invented uranium glass. The most likely explanation is that various scientists and glassmakers explored the use of uranium in the early part of the 19th century, and that during the second quarter of the century some items made from coloured uranium glass were being produced for sale.

It is difficult to know just how rapidly the interest in uranium glass developed. From the samples I have studied, most of which are subject to my own dating, I am of the opinion that it did not gain popularity until the last quarter of the nineteenth century and was then used by most glasshouses until the start of the Second World War. However there is an interesting note in the Pottery Gazette and Glass Trade Review (September 1891) which states that “fifty years ago it (uranium) was first used in glass and we think then it was new, or at all events a scarce mineral, and our older readers will remember the rage ‘canary yellow’ had at that period in hock glasses, toilet bottles, etc. Amongst the early makers of this colour in glass were Hawkes and Bacchus & Green, who priced it at 3s. 6d. per lb. It was then only made in transparent glass; now we find it in semi-opaque and ivory body, but like everything in fancy glass it has had its day and is seen no more”. This latter comment is a little hard to accept as Davidson’s were at that very time producing their popular Primrose Pearline. Perhaps the writer was ignoring the cheaper press moulded products made for the masses! Nevertheless, deducting the fifty years brings us back to 1841, which is only a few years different from what the other sources indicated.



Page 1

  1 2 3 4 Next Page >>

Text © Barrie Skelcher and The Journal of the Glass Association 2001.