Brian Oxley's "Glass - a Peterhouse Story"

Words by Brian Oxley (m. 1953)

Wherever we are... just looking around, watching TV or even in outer space, there is glass. Windows, mirrors, cars, doors, balustrades... It surrounds us, protects us from the weather, reflects our worst features and lets us see what is out there!

A black and white photo of a young brian oxley looking through a microscope

Chris Calladine (m. 1953 and Emeritus Fellow), who won an oar in a Peterhouse boat, adopted a more serious lifestyle after graduation, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and acquiring editorial duties. Chris called me one day, knowing I had worked in the glass business, to ask whether I might write a memoir for a Fellow who had died 25 years ago. I realised that I was probably the only person still alive who could do this based on personal involvement, so agreed to take on the challenge. To be fair, Chris did warn me that it would be like rowing a double Baitsbite…

I had not anticipated, however, that this would mean condensing into 20 pages the history of glassmaking over the centuries; the family and personal background of the deceased Fellow; the nature of the technical challenge and the consequences for the world's glass industry.  The task took me a long, long way beyond Baitsbite but stirred up good memories.

The subject was to be Sir Alastair Pilkington, recognised as the progenitor of "Float" glass, which is now produced all over the world and is part of all our lives.

Peterhouse? On graduating, I fell back into the usual pattern of my life... tripping into one uninvited challenge after another, but this time with a Homerton partner in support. I've always advised others to accept a challenge because there can be only one of two outcomes... success will mean you've learnt something and failure will mean you've probably learnt even more. Recruitment by the Pilkington glass company took me into a new world.  In retrospect I perhaps had two serendipitous advantages for which I take no credit. I had spent some time with the SAS in the jungles of Northern Malaya, for which George VI, and whilst still there Elisabeth II, were responsible: there I learnt to deal with the unexpected. Arriving immediately thereafter through the Porter's Lodge, I was drawn into PBC's drang nach top and learnt the value of teamwork, based on the dedicated enthusiasm of all who had gone before, including Jacques Heyman (m. 1942 and Emeritus Fellow). 

Recruitment by that northern glass company took me swiftly from the end of an oar to the end of a microscope... and work in an environment far hotter than any jungle. The outcome is now a matter of record and can be found on the Royal Society’s website... a story which would have remained untold but for the link to Professor Calladine and Peterhouse."