Losing your marbles

Do children still play games of marbles or ‘alleys’? No game ‘season’ was so keenly awaited by boys at my junior school. I never could understand who it was that determined a particular time was the correct moment to start playing marbles. Now with conkers nature dictated events, but with marbles? With my poor eye-hand co-ordination I am certain that I lost more than I won and I remember constantly having to ‘buy back’ my favourite specimens from more gifted players.

I think it is worth considering the technology of these small objects. They certainly have a long history; there are Roman and Egyptian stone marbles and clay marbles from all eras. The first glass marbles are said to be of German origin dating from 1848. Mass production advanced in the US during the Great War, when European supplies were cut off. Since 1930 virtually all glass marbles have been machine-made. Although glass is now the most popular material, since it lends itself to mass production, the names ‘marble’ and ‘alley’ (alabaster) suggest that these items were originally made of soft rocks. Other marble related names, such as ‘taws’ are more difficult to explain. In my childhood steel ball bearings, mainly from Sweden I believe, were a highly acceptable substitute for glass marbles and small boys would visit motor garages to solicit them from generous mechanics.

The word marble is derived from the Old French mabre, which is the name of the crystalline rock, but it has come to mean any small round sphere used for the purpose. Most of the marbles used in medieval and Elizabethan England were actually made from clay. Around 1600, water-powered stone mills in Germany began producing ground and polished versions from the marble and alabaster quarries, especially in the regions near Coburg and Oberstein. Soon the mills began grinding out versions from agate, limestone, and brass; these large operations are said to have been able to grind marbles into shape at the rate of about 800 an hour. Germany was the centre of marble manufacturing for several centuries. Elias Greiner made the early German glass marbles with marble shears or scissors, a tool previously invented by his step-brother to make artificial animal eyes and glass buttons. This tool resembled a pair of tongs with a small cup on one prong and a slicing device on the other. A molten glass rod would be forcefully inserted into the cup, and the worker would then twist the cup, which would help form the sphere of the marble. Squeezing the tongs shut sliced off the rest of the glass. Such marbles can be identified by their pontil marks, the two tiny tags at each end of the sphere where the cooling glass was severed from the rest of the rod. These ‘artificial agates’ could imitate marble or be coloured to resemble amber, lapis lazuli, topaz, and so forth.

Modern glass marbles are machine made: molten glass is cut into regular cylinders by shears and the portions ‘gob-fed’ into a pair of helical moving rollers. This technique has been virtually universal since 1930. But there was a second method of making cane marbles that employs a bench mounted press that looks like a big pair of pliers. The majority of the type produced by this process were made of transparent monochromatic glass and were utilized as bottle stoppers in ‘Codd’ bottles in the period 1890-1930. Germany produced many of such bottle stopper marbles. The stoppers kept the fizz in carbonated drinks with the pressure of the carbon dioxide forcing the glass stopper upwards to maintain the seal. These glass spheres were also a highly acceptable substitute for purpose made glass marbles and small boys would visit grocers to solicit them.

Today, marbles are still produced in vast numbers, but most are made in third world factories. One such operation, Vacor de Mexico, located in Guadalajara, allegedly produced about 12 million marbles a day, which were then shipped to 35 different countries. Modern marbles are made from a combination of sand, soda lime, silica, and several other ingredients added for pigment or decoration. Sand, soda lime, and crushed cullet are fed into a large, furnace-driven tank. In the tank, the mixture is heated to 2300°F (1260°C) to melt the raw materials. This can take as long as 28 hours. Next, the molten mixture moves out of the tank through an opening into another vat known as the flow tank. There an opening in this tank through which molten coloured glass can be injected. This hot, pigmented, glass gives the marbles their distinct appearance. A green marble has been injected with glass containing iron oxide; cobalt results in a blue marble; and manganese will yield a purple one. The use of uranium oxide gives marbles an eerie, greenish-yellow cast. This was first used as a glass colourant in the mid-nineteenth century and was employed up to the time of the second world war when a new use for uranium was discovered. Personally I don’t like it. The speed and force of the injection determines the final design of the marble. Finally the still-molten glass is released from the flow tank as globs of glass. Automatic cutting devices slice the mixture into equal parts. The globs travel down metal ramps that simultaneously cool them and perfect their spherical shape. Next, they travel down a second metal slide and are sorted by hand. Marbles with flaws are sent back to another area of the factory for re-melting. The marbles cool off in 5-gallon containers that house 5,000 marbles at a time.

The majority of the contemporary art marbles created today are produced from pre-formed glass canes at an average price of £25 per marble! Hand-making marbles requires many of the traditional glass-making techniques such as: shaping, cutting, layering, marvering, annealing and lamp heating (to remove a glass neck). The results can be very beautiful indeed, like glass paper-weights in miniature. All this is very well but it doesn’t explain where the expression ‘losing your marbles’ comes from in the sense of quitting hold on reality. It almost certainly has nothing to do with glass spheres. Nor the Elgin Marbles which, at the moment at any rate, are one of the glories of the British Museum although outraged Greek ministers have been known to solicit them.

Glass ma


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