Sunday, August 20, 2017

Yonder Window

My house, not unlike myself, is getting old. I fight entropy in both cases as best I can but with an eye to the wallet, which is far from thick enough to be safely ignored. I have yet to require any replacement parts for myself unless you count a few dental crowns, but the structures on my property have not fared quite so well. Roofs, retaining walls, doors, furnaces, faucet valves, central air units, and kitchen appliances are among the many things that have decided to retire while I still had want of their services. Not wanting to emulate Grey Gardens, I patch or replace as needed, though no more than needed, which is to say I do no purely decorative remodeling. I do hire professionals, albeit reluctantly, when I don’t trust myself (e.g. for furnace troubles or for plumbing repairs beyond the most basic toilet-mechanism-replacement sort of thing), but if it is just a matter of mixing cement, wielding a shovel, or swinging a hammer I’ll be cheap and do it myself. I will admit to having had second thoughts while recently re-roofing the barn; about halfway through, it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t 18 anymore. However, once the roof was done – well, after the aches and pains faded anyway – I was glad to have saved the $.

The do-it-yourself job this past weekend was a window replacement. For passive solar reasons my roof has two-foot (61 cm) overhangs and no gutters. The rainwater spills directly onto gravel catchment pads which recharge the ground. This works well, but there is one basement window in one back corner of the house that is beneath a roof valley and so gets a lot of backsplash from the gravel during heavy rains. Unsurprisingly, after several decades of this it was the one window that was rotting away. (A few other windows have problems, such as cranky crank mechanisms, but none is rotting.) Replacing it along with the exterior frame and trim took me all day instead of the couple hours it would take a pro, but at least the cost was just in the low three figures instead of four. The original window manufacturer is no longer in business, which is just as well. In place of the original double casement with its finicky Rube Goldberg-esque cranks, I put in a slider: no gears, levers, and rolling wheels to foul.

Windows are an obvious solution to the need for interior light and ventilation, so it is no surprise that everywhere in the world they are as old as permanent structures themselves. Weather being variable, ventilation is not always welcome, however, so for comfort (and security) some way to close them was necessary. Hinged wooden shutters were the preferred solution and they persist to this day, but they defeat the “light” purpose. Something translucent was desired. In the ancient West the most common early solution for upscale folk was parchment (thin treated animal skin) while in the East it was paper. Fabric was a lower cost alternative. All three work but have limitations. Glass seems like an obvious answer today, but the ancients had a very hard time getting the stuff transparent. Until they did it offered no advantages for windows.

Glass per se is not difficult to make. Even the Sumerians were able to do it. Heat up a silicate (SiO2) such as quartz until the crystalline bonds break and you have glass. You can reduce the temperature at which this happens by adding a flux such as potash. Cuneiform tablets from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (650 BCE) include a recipe for glass. But that just gives you a blob of rapidly cooling glass. Turning it into something useful is much more difficult. Making it clear (manganese dioxide is the key ingredient for that) took centuries of trial and error. The Romans were the first to make glass windows in large numbers, and not until the first century CE. Because of the production techniques, the windows were small panes set in mullions. Techniques for rolling large sheets of plate glass had to wait until early modern times; Louis XIV wanted them for the mirrors and windows of Versailles.

Today, of course, as a small part of the overflowing muchness of the modern world, large glass windows are so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about them – until, that is, we have to replace them. Or when a gremlin stares back at you through one. I hate when that happens.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Looking Out the Window


  1. It's funny how one's brain wants to fool you into thinking the reality of things: I'm not 18 anymore or 30 or even 60, but you still sometimes think that though the mirror may tell you different. Like you, I still try and do the smaller things, although replacing a window would have been beyond my capacity, so good for you. Plumbing I can do somewhat, among a few other chores, and yard work (which I hate). But I'll do them trying to save a bit of money.

    In older western when they'd show the log cabin they'd mostly be open air, maybe a cloth curtain at times. They probably were more use to living with nature than we are today.

    1. Plate glass was pricey until the middle of the 19th century, and given the less than gentle delivery methods of the day it didn't transport well to the backwoods. So, yes, I suppose one couldn't be too fastidious about flies and other critters.

      Youth was indeed more fun. I can't imagine why I gave it up.

  2. I had no idea the Sumerians knew how to make glass. That is really impressive. Since they preserved the recipe for it, I wonder what they did use it for. Must have meant something to them.

    Shatner and the gremlin - one of my favorite moments from that series. You can always count on Shatner for a an entertaining episode.

    1. The Sumerians made glass drinking vessels and vases and ornaments (especially beads). Glass blowing hadn't been invented yet, however, so they had to cast or grind it -- or both. Glass has to cool quickly or crystals will form, which is to say it will turn back into rock instead of glass. So you have to work quickly if you want to shape it while it's malleable. The raw material was cheap but working it was pretty labor intensive, which is probably why it wasn't all that common.

      It wasn't the only time Shatner had a window encounter. Remember the Outer Limits episode in which the Venusian stared into his spaceship? I guess inhuman beings are just attracted to his face.