When you see the windshield of an automobile after an accident and, despite the glass being shattered six ways from Sunday and all miraculously held together in a giant glittering spider web of cracks, you’re bearing witness to one of the biggest automotive safety innovations of the 20th century this side of the three-point harness seat belt: laminated glass.
What’s even more incredible is that the lamination process that layers the glass with plastic polymers to ensure that it doesn’t shatter into a million pieces that go flying into the cab of the vehicle upon impact was invented entirely by accident. Back in 1903, the French researcher and all around Renaissance man (he was also an artist, writer, and composer) Édouard Bénédictus accidentally knocked a flask off of his work bench. The flask most certainly hit the ground and it most certainly broke, but rather than send shards of glass shooting all over his lab, it instead retained its shape as if frozen in time at the moment of impact.
The secret, Bénédictus quickly deduced, was that the interior of the flask was coated with a plastic cellulose nitrate from an earlier experiment. Inspired by the number of accounts he had heard of people being seriously injured in automotive accidents due to shattered windshields, he used his new found discovery to create shatterproof laminated glass. The first automobiles to bear his safety glass rolled off the line in 1927 and the technology has been in use ever since for automotive applications, high-rise windows, and even “bulletproof glass”–which isn’t truly bulletproof, as it were, but is created with enough layers of laminated glass to make it highly resistant to bullets for a period of time until the glass is completely compromised.
Image courtesy of Talento Tec.