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Fiberglass is a material composed of very fine threads of glass and sometimes other materials, loosely grouped together in bundles. Fiberglass has many impressive qualities, among them strength, flexibility, heat trapping, and fire-resistance. Fiberglass is used in vehicle construction, woven into cloths to make them fire resistant, and as insulation.
The earliest form of fiberglass, which consisted of coarse glass fibers, was used by the ancient Egyptians. They incorporated the fibers into pottery, as a decorative trim.
The first modern process for making fiberglass was developed by Parisian craftsman Dubus-Bonnel. He would spin and weave strands of hot glass on a loom. Dubus-Bonnel was granted a patent for his product in 1836. (A patent is a grant made by a government that allows the creator of invention the sole right to make, use, and sell that invention for a set period of time.) Then in 1893, the Libbey Glass Company exhibited lampshades at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago that were made of coarse glass thread woven together with silk.
Between 1931 and 1939 in the United States, the Owens Illinois Glass Company and the Corning Glass Works developed the first practical methods of making fiberglass commercially. The greatest technical challenge they faced was creating long glass strands as thin as 1/5000 of an inch. Once they crossed that hurdle, the industry began to produce glass fiber for thermal insulation and air filters, among other uses.
During World War II (1939-45), glass fibers were combined with plastics to create a new material called glass-fiber-reinforced plastics (GFRP). Glass fibers did for plastics what steel did for concrete—they gave plastics strength and flexibility. GFRP is now used extensively in boat and ship construction, sporting goods, automobile bodies, and circuit boards in electronics.
Sources: Diamond, Freda. The Story of Glass, pp. 197-224; Giscard d'Estaing, Valerie-Anne. The World Almanac Book of Inventions, p. 274; Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of Invention and Technology, p. 129; Travers, Bridget, ed. World of Invention, p 247.
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