Symposium 2000    
  Margaret Carney      

Margaret Carney opened the symposium with an overview of ceramics interpreted in its broadest sense: as a material with applications in most areas of our working and social lives. Her presentation was generously illustrated with a wide range of slides and these are indicated at the appropriate point in the text by bold type.

A world without ceramics

Margaret Carney

In April, 1931, at a conference dedicated to the Practical Arts, Arthur Baggs, professor of ceramic art at the Ohio State University gave a talk titled ‘Things We Should Know about Pottery’. He spoke about ceramics in the broad sense, not just encompassing clay wares but including practically all non-metallic products which are developed under high-temperature treatment. He observed that they were ‘closely allied in the nature of their raw materials and in the chemistry and physics involved in their combination and treatment’. He suggested they were at least cousins of pottery. In looking at the whole family he made an intriguing observation which has become the foundation of my own relationship with ceramics - as the director and chief curator of a specialized museum devoted to ceramics and as a ceramic historian. He noted that ‘one of the most convincing ways to prove the usefulness of anything is to try to do without it’. Today I ask you to use your imagination just as he asked his audience - to imagine ‘our modern life without ceramics of any sort’.

Let’s say this is our home in Los Angeles, or perhaps this home in the South Western dessert of the United States, or perhaps this more modest Craftsman bungalow in Wisconsin. We must remember that glass is a ceramic. And cement is a ceramic. Many things are ceramic that one does not generally categorize as ceramic and about 90% of the applications are hidden. What would our day be like without our brick, terra cotta, stucco or cement exteriors on our houses; our concrete floors; maybe you didn’t know paints contain ceramics? I am going to be showing you a lot of things that you didn’t know contain ceramics. The pigments that maintain their permanent color in paints are in fact ceramic compounds; our glass windows (2); our mirrors (one or many); our brick and tile fireplaces; our tile kitchens; our tile bathrooms; our lighting; our bathroom tubs (2), sinks and toilets; door knobs; our dinnerware (2); flowerpots; our beverage glasses; our ceramic knick-knacks; eyeglasses; windshields; Corelle Ware (actually three layers of laminated glass); televisions - it is not just the picture tube that is made out of glass but many of the electronic components inside rely on the electrical properties of ceramics; computers (2) - it’s the same story plus the hard drive and all your floppies are coated with a layer of magnetic ceramics that records your data; aquariums; refrigerator magnets- most of the permanent magnets in the world are made out of iron oxide-base ceramics called ferrites; ceramic powders give cosmetics their color, their luxurious tactile quality (everybody knows about talc and it is just one material they might use in cosmetics); a ceramic bullet proof vest (boron carbide); ceramic knives and scissors (zirconia); kitty litter - made out of clay, of course; catalytic converters (extruded cordierite honeycombs); cars and car parts, including all sorts of magnets and sensors; sports equipment reinforced with ceramic fibres and some even have piezo ceramic devices that dampen vibrations using technology that originated with fighter jets; hip joints (zirconia); teeth (dental porcelain); neon signs; and lava lamps. And this, of course, is only a partial listing. If one looks at the top thirty products and technologies developed in the past thirty years we see computers, microwaves, photocopiers, VCR’s, space shuttles, microsurgery techniques and so on. Only four of these top thirty do not include a ceramic component (disposable diapers, birth control, CAD/CAM and Velcro fasteners).

With the Olympics in Sydney and the thousands of times in the next few weeks that those of us armchair spectators will view the Games from our homes AND the vision of their marvelous Opera House, one is reminded of the construction of that edifice. It took 14 years to build and cost $100 million dollars. The 1,056,000 ceramic tiles were made in Sweden and they weigh 157,800 tons. A world without ceramics - hard to imagine.

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Symposium 2000 • Issue 1