While it's unfortunate that it's a struggle to find a replacement now - and from the outside I don't know what went on leading up to this - I can't help but think if they'd set the budget for it a decade ago, they wouldn't be in this situation.
edit: changed is => when
As indicated in a recent post on HN there is already a company working on creating an autonomous pizza truck that will prepare hot food in route to a location serving it hot at arrival. Coupled with autonomous vehicle technology, we will soon see the evaportion of labor jobs MUCH quicker than many expect. As we use our resources better, I find that elevating the bottom is important, while still allowing for capitalism and free markets to keep the top uncapped.
Artistic pursuits; as well as things machines can certainly do as well or better than humans, is not only anthropologically important but certainly skills we would want to retain if there were ever to be a failure of mechanization.
By coincidence proper heat treatment requires all of those too :) Depending on how deep you want to plunge.
It seems that they probably have similar risks, though glassblowing for the lab might require a broader domain knowledge.
The consequences for using a poorly-made Erlenmeyer flask are potentially devastating on a far larger scale than for a poorly-made knife.
the equipment is not expensive enough to prevent most apprentices in US/EU/CA to just go out on their own after a while. where as in lower income countries the apprentice is easier to keep for a much longer timeline.
The technical ability to capture knowledge, particularly for craft trades like glassblowing, has existed for as long as humans have been organized into societies - it's usually a question of dedicating resources to support it.
The apprenticeship model needs a renaissance.
Think about construction. There are manual laborers with no domain knowledge that can do basic grunt work for pennies on the dollar, some with domain expertise to guide the grunts, and people that coordinate the entire construction project.
Then there's an entirely separate group of people actually working on architecture... designing the building, ensuring the structure can hold load, meets customer and legal requirements, and can be delivered on a schedule.
At my company, a good SDE1 hire is someone that's at the architecture-level... they might not be able to design a skyscraper but they can design a house. Yet 90%+ of their time will be spent putting up walls and installing plumbing.
That's ridiculous for everyone involved.
so i would say they two are in fact very similar. classroom mixed with real world use of that knowledge is better then just sitting in class the entire time with no chance to get real world usage, help and walk-throughs, until after the fact. in which case apprenticeship might be better then a degree.
As far as I can tell, automation changed manual skills two ways - by capturing and automating simple actions, it decreased the skills needed for a number of jobs but by freeing up resources up resources, it allowed some people to develop skills to a far greater depth than previously for specialized purposes such as science or art.
But capturing the skills of these remaining highly skilled individuals seems like a tough task especially since there's no incentive to build a machine to duplicate their activities - the total value of the product they isn't that high.
On the other hand, if someone figures out a way to 3d print high quality glassware, the whole field would go out the window.
If you want a cobol programmer (aside: iOS autocorrects that to cool programmer), get a decent programmer, give him a language reference and half a year of time, and presto! There's your cobol programmer. After all, programming is programming.
If you want a good glassblower, there's no reservoir of people with experience in similar stuff.
Having said that, there is at least one school that educates instrument makers of all kinds; Kamerlingh Onnes started one in Leiden because he needed instrument makers in his cryogenics lab.
To be at the top you must have been in the trenches at least a couple of years.
(though I doubt if they were very involved in the decision of when to start looking for a new glassblower)
In theory modern CAD etc. can help to design. In theory money saved on the bulk can be used to order in a specialized shop.
But it is a difference having a master locally advising mechanically challenged chemistry Ph.D. on the same science team vs.a paid consultant remotely playing for another financial team. And I doubt the saved money will be available for the Ph.D. students.
Only if you know the limits of the physical manufacturing process - otherwise you are going to design the perfect bizarre piece that your experiment needs, only to find later that glass blowing can't produce it.
That said, access to a glassblower is an infrastructure problem. When you need to consult with one about design of a piece of equipment there's no alternative, and when the guy is in-house turnaround is faster and friction is lower. The difference is: thirty years ago more people in the chemistry department had use for the glassblower, the cost would be spread wider, the budget item would be easier to justify.
Someone mentioned secretaries in this thread. Every faculty member used to employ one for typing, travel arrangements &c. Nowadays everyone types their own manuscripts and books their own travel, so it's difficult to make the case for an assistant. But when a conference comes up and the task to make arrangements for ten speakers falls on one member of faculty you really see why personal assistants are vital infrastructure.
Another funny thing: the majority of labglass factories is located in New Jersey because of the pharma cluster in that state. Pharma has moved out, and likely we'll see closings in the decade ahead.
An on-site glassblower sounds like (although this is the first time I've heard of such a thing, it's probably specific to chemistry) a perk that is (very) nice to have, but just doesn't fit in today's cost structures. 50 years ago, it was normal for every 'professional' to have a secretary, who would plan meetings, send letters, make coffee etc. Today, how many non-CxO level people have personal secretaries? Having all these support jobs on-site was how it was done but today most places don't even have local IT support (with IT being what replaced most of these support jobs in the first place).
The article mentions there are 50-ish ppl a year graduating the one institute in the whole of the US that teaches glass blowing. That means the demand just isn't there. I mean, there is probably 'demand' in the sense that there is plenty of 'demand' for Ferrari's at $10k / piece, but there is no real demand at proper prices. In other words, if people lament the loss of such jobs but don't want to pay what it costs to replace them, is there really 'demand' or just nostalgia?
Generally, doing new things doesn't fit in today's cost structures. If you're doing stuff that's actually pushing the frontiers of anything, your cost structures will also look different to everyone else's. But there are lots of benefits to have such specialists in-house, primary being that they a) know your specific needs, and b) might actually be invested in your overall goals - as opposed to third parties that often couldn't care less.
> 50 years ago, it was normal for every 'professional' to have a secretary, who would plan meetings, send letters, make coffee etc. Today, how many non-CxO level people have personal secretaries? Having all these support jobs on-site was how it was done but today most places don't even have local IT support (with IT being what replaced most of these support jobs in the first place).
I think secretaries were replaced by computers. I don't know of many professors with personal secretaries, but I also haven't heard of anyone outsourcing these kind of duties to a specialized "secretary-consulting" company. As for IT support, the IT infrastructure in universities generally sucks and tends to go downhill - but that's a longer discussion, and I generally would attribute this to infrastructure being something that has easy-to-count costs and harder-to-count benefits, which makes it an obvious target for various beancounters.
> That means the demand just isn't there.
That's probably true. One university doing novel research does not by itself a market demand make. That's why they should have spent the time and money to have the guy train his replacement on-site.
One of the great failures of modern management theory is the failure to recognize that activities involving new things, things that either haven't been tried before, or doing something old in a new way, is itself an unrepeatable process.
Testing airplanes is a very different activity to manufacturing airplanes, and yet I'm forced to attend innumerable training courses on how Lean/Six Sigma methods can improve my work. There's some merit in this material, but because my employer is forced to be ISO-9001 compliant, it's all forced down my throat without thought given to its appropriateness.
Specifically, I think they were replaced by good asynchronous communication mediums. That medium used to be paper, which is slow; the fast alternative was synchronous phone calls. (Interestingly, telegraphs were generally asynchronous.) Then the fax and answering machines came and made it a little better. Then computers came, and now I don't need a secretary to call someone else's secretary to make an appointment, I just send a request in Outlook after finding a clear spot on their calendar.
Plasma physics too, for making vacuum vessels with various types of electrodes and coils embedded.
> 50 years ago, it was normal for every 'professional' to have a secretary
I've been wondering what change happened that could motivate this. I mean, if it was rational to have a secretary then, and it is rational not to have one now, some circumstance must have changed. Are planning meetings, sending letters, and making coffee that much easier now that they motivate it?
Or a are we making a mistake by not hiring secretaries now? Or was it a mistake to have them?
-- Typing and distributing paper reports used to be a big part of the workday. You needed someone who could not only type an error-free 70+ words per minute, but also who knew how to format documents properly (headers, footers, page numbers, envelopes, etc), and who could take care of the reproduction, packaging and mailing.
-- Setting up meetings would require phoning around to other people, or more likely, their secretaries.
-- Travel arrangements would need to be taken care of manually by calling a travel agent, collecting paper tickets in advance, etc.
-- From the "supply" side, institutionalized gender discrimination meant that there was a steady supply of cheap labor that didn't have a lot of other alternatives, career-wise.
Computers killed the typing pool. The WWW and email killed the need for dedicated support staff for all but the highest-value employees. (Greater) equality in the workplace means that women have other career options, putting upward pressure on compensation for executive assistants.
50 years ago there was still a tradition of wartime economy work as hard as possible. Also there was a booming economy so the limited number of grads were in demand and their time was valuable. So even a (then well paid) English Lit prof had minimum wage level tasks to accomplish and the most financially sensible way to get all that work done, especially those lower level tasks, was to hire a secretary for that prof.
Now we overproduce grads such that most grads end up working jobs not requiring any degree, there's 100 applicants for every academic position because there is no booming economy anymore. No more tenure track for anyone who asks, its adjunct prof making less than minimum wage for the lucky tiny fraction of the grads. If the adjunct prof is officially only part time they've got plenty of time for menial work (making coffee etc) and if they are paid adjunct wages it would be hard to justify hiring a secretary who would likely be higher paid than the adjunct! Being a grinder who works hard for endless hours without rocking any boats is how the adjunct got hired to begin with. If the adjunct doesn't like doing menial work, that's OK, there are 99 applicants stuck at Starbucks that would love that academic position. Its a pro sports model where all the rewards go to the very top pro players and everyone else barely survives. Pro sports athletes will be treated extravagantly, but the average athlete is not going to be well treated.
I think the cost difference might be an important factor. Secretaries were generally paid a lot less than managers. This was also tied into status. Outside of the military, typing was often seen as women's work, and below the status of a manager.
There was also a much bigger need for typists back then, as much more correspondence was done through the mail. For example, you might write a draft on a typewriter, add hand-written notes with corrections, then retype to get the corrected version to send to your customer. Computers reduce that overhead.
One of the organizers of a scientific meeting I regularly attend says it's harder now to organize the meeting than when he started. It used to be that a company included a general service component to one's job, which could be used to help organize a conference, or review papers. Now, the organizer said, companies want employees to be more focused on the bottom line.
But at best those are hints. They don't answer your questions.
(networked) computers happened.
My first job was on campus at Cranfield Uni and we had our, own wood, mech and electroincs shops and thats not counting access to the universities labs and shops.
I think the glassblower here is the same. Such a shame that we don't have pipelines for more people to pursue things like this.
We also had a student machine shop where students could work and there was a technician on hand to give advice (and prevent you from doing something stupid).
I assume getting custom glass blown isn't a core requirement of the chemistry curriculum, or a very common thing for working chemists to be doing.
I'm reminded of an article I read about 20 years ago by James Boyk, who was Caltech's music lab director and pianist in residence, about the difficulty of finding piano technicians skilled enough to maintain pianos for concert level pianists after his long time piano technician moved away .
How this arises is intriguing- I'd guess (and only a guess) that it's a combination of inherent sensitivity and experience.
Hand Tattooing 
And there is growing market for premium knives made from tamahagane and using traditional sword making techniques.
The case with Wilfried Fehrekampf and blaupließten - he was the last to know the traditional German grind (not the axes that Wusthof repurposes as knives lately) - but he found apprentices and the new Herder 1922 are terrific.
There will always be market for the traditional.
I wouldn't be surprised if there are surgeons today that would look superhuman a few decades ago. I also suspect athletes are getting better, and everything about movie making except the stories.
This is a beautiful HD video of sealing a nixie tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_sKuQ8Fm8c
Borosilicate Glass working is like throwing clay + science, with added dimensions of heat and time.
From the German wikipedia, I see there's a school that educates glass blowers, and they have various areas of specialisation. 
There are definitely still niches where the vocational path can get you a very high-paying job, but as a whole it's seen as a riskier bet than it used to be, so is getting less popular. There's also a feeling that even picking a vocational area that looks hot now is too risky, because in 10 years it might share the fate of the shipping industry. (A similar story can be told about the steel industry in the US, which was once seen as a very good career path, but now tends to serve as more of a object lesson for why not to follow the vocational-skills path.)
Except of course that adult Gen-X slackers, who are more likely to be a homeowner, have had a lot more time to learn what a good plumber or electrician is worth.
I also doubt that apprenticeships contribute much to an economy that is mostly driven by high-tech exports.
A shame? Quite an understatement. Sadly short-termism is the message du jour. I don't have the first idea how skills that once took a ten year apprenticeship can be sensibly preserved, or why apprenticeships have so comprehensively died. "Modern apprenticeships", or whatever your region calls them, don't provide anything near the same depth.
As this article shows, even the places that actually need those rare skills cannot see far enough ahead to recruit a shadow apprentice.
It's not just the niche skills that get lost, it's the problem solving abilities that went with them.
Apprenticeships in the UK have to pick from those that are left and deal with the damage done by TV shows and super markets saying you can do an apprenticeship in shelf stacking - when in fact its just cheap labour.
I thought it was a pretty good idea since it meant that everybody would learn the basics of cooking, sewing, and woodworking.
My high schools I went to all had some sort of vocational courses and if you weren't doing the advanced courses (in preparation for university), you were kind of expected that you'd do some of them. I moved for my final year of high school and while I was disappointed I wouldn't get to do another year of programming, they did have a electronics course (I built a small radio). I later learned that a few years after I started university, they cancelled the electronics course.
Quite a paradise for a nerd like me.
I'd imagine the money is better making high end smoking apparatus than lab gear.
"This year, Salem Community College graduated 31 glassblowers — for years, the school graduated about 20 each year — and it expects 66 incoming students next school year. Social media videos have sparked new interest in the craft, Briening said."
Perhaps a couple of apprenticeships while the experienced ones are still around? Wouldn't cost that much.
I'm liking this increase in interest in craft production and manual skills - the kind that are harder to taylorise.
Hiring a rookie glassblower or two at maybe 50.000 a year for 5 years would have cost them perhaps half a million. And now instead of that they're going to have to 'steal' one from another university for god knows how much money and God knows for how long.
The glassblowers there seemed to think that the repair of broken glass equipments is potentially hazardous to the glassblower, and one of the founders who handled more repair requests had two cancer surgeries. It's only an anecdote, but it could be a reason why it is difficult to find a successor of this 71 year-old person.
"With nearly 9 million copies in print, The Foxfire Book and its eleven companion volumes stand memorial to the people and the vanishing culture of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, brought to life for readers through the words of those who were born, lived their lives, and passed away there—words collected by high school students who wanted to be a part of their community and preserve their heritage."
// edit: corrected link, added quote
How many other things do you think are actually made by hand, where you'd think they're made by machine?
Such combination of diameter and bend angle was not available off-the-shelf, so a glassblower needed to make a custom piece for us.
I've never seen it done with glass, just plastic and metal.
IT would have better thermal resistance, integrity, and be able to still stand up to corrosive chemicals due to a glass doping.
The main issue is that it would not be transparent.
Neoliberals, note that fact.
"So... a neurologist takes 13 years to train from scratch. How does the market manage that?"
Free market is good only when you have both elastic supply and demand.
And if we look outside of neurosurgery to general medical practice, we'll find that it was humming along quite nicely without any gov't support.
If I link to a NHTSA website on the history of cars, are you going to argue the government invented cars?
What is your argument?
In Florida they have their own special tax district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District. It is "exempt from all county and most state regulations, such as development-impact fees or costly and time-consuming regional-impact studies. The district is regulated by building codes drafted with the developer`s help. Waterways, utilities and sewer systems are built to suit the developer`s needs. The district is governed by a ruling body that is handpicked by the developer." http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1987-02-23/business/8701120...
Here's the parent comment, in case you can't see it:
It takes ten years to train people of that skill. Not having access to a capable glassblower as a chemical researcher is an infrastructure problem that cannot be solved with any amount of money. You need a master glassblower to train the next generation, and you need capable apprentices, and it still takes ten years.
I think there is a point here, but it could have been worded less incendiary.
If you always try to lower costs, outsource everything, buy the cheapest glass from some chinese factory, you will lose local expertise. If you outsource entry level positions now, you will lose experienced craftsmen in the future.
But with some foresight, a university (or any company) can easily avoid this, by hiring apprentices early; if you give a young person a chance, they will often be loyal and stay even if, after years of training, they could now get a better paying job somewhere else.
Neoliberals are in power.
Ask the blowers in that community if they could make the pieces shown at http://www.ilpi.com/glassblowing/glassblowing.html .
There's a reason it takes years to master scientific glassblowing.
I've done a lot of programming, but I'm the wrong person to talk to if you want an operating system or mobile app.
That said, they would clearly have to do a lot of learning and training for the more specific scientific applications, and since many artists get thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars per piece, I'm sure you'd have a hard time luring them away. On top of that, they probably couldn't be stoned all day and would go from making art to making whatever functional objects are needed.
Still, lightlyused referred to "several glass blowers in that community" who lightlyused personally knew. My comment was in response to that. I seriously doubt that those are the ones who make high end pieces.
Bong making is not hard. It's one of the things that chemistry undergrads often do if they take a glass blowing class and the staff lets them get away with it. (Sometimes the lab teacher will even anneal your 'project'.)
I can be good enough at carpentry to make bookshelves for me and my friends. That doesn't mean I can build a good staircase.
Similarly, it would be hard to lure me away to, say, a job developing cloud computing infrastructure.
I don't know if printed would have the same strength as hand blown, but they could maybe fill in some of the gap with printed pieces.
I know it's possible to use computers to design the glassware apparatus that take into account the material constraints of glass, but is there a difficulty gap in translating that into an actual machined product?
The intent of my question wasn't to blindly try to techsmith a solution, but rather, to understand what a traditional practitioner brings to the table vs. what can be provided via an automated process.