There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred And Three

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665)

Until the arrival of the glass bottle in the early 17th century, wine was stored and transported initially in amphorae, two-handled ceramic vessels lined with beeswax, favoured by the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks and Romans, and then barrels made from oak or pine, an idea prototyped by the Gauls for storing their beer and then adopted by the Romans with some gusto. The early glass bottles, developed by Venetian glassworks, turned out to be ideal for wine, offering a chemically neutral and airtight container. The problem was that the process was phenomenally expensive, the glass was very delicate and only the very rich could afford to have their wine stored in them.

For the English, the storage of wine was a very real problem. According to WineGB 15.6 million bottles were produced in England and Wales in 2018, but in days of yore the climate was not conducive to growing grapes of a quality to produce something vaguely drinkable. As a significant importer of wine, England had a significant incentive to find a handier way of storing the stuff.

This is where Sir Kenelm Digby comes in.

Digby was what one might call a larger than life character with a penchant for scrapes and adventures, a trait he inherited from his father, who was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot and was hung, drawn, and quartered for his troubles. He killed a man in a duel, had to fake his own death to escape the consequences of an affair with Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry IV of France, and operated for a while as a pirate. In December 1627, he won royal approval to take a ship bristling with guns into the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean, launching a successful attack on some French ships anchored in the Venetian port of Scanderoon on the Turkish coast. Returning in triumph in February 1628, Digby was dismayed to find that the authorities had to quickly disavow his actions for fear of reprisals on English merchants sailing in the Mediterranean.

With his tail firmly between his legs, Digby retreated to the calmer waters of Gresham College where, in the 1630s, he developed his interest in matters scientific and, particularly, alchemical. He developed a substance, the “Powder of Sympathy”, which was supposed to possess magical healing properties. It is said that he dosed up his wife, Lady Venetia, with the potion when she was ill. Alas, it didn’t work, she died, leaving Digby mortified.

In 1615 King James the First had ordered that England’s precious stock of timber be used for building ships rather than providing fuel for furnaces. Henceforth English furnaces were fired by coal, the consequence of which, for glass making, was that hotter temperatures were achieved, making for stronger glass. Sir Robert Mansell had perfected the technique for firing glass in coal furnaces and in 1623 was given a monopoly to set up glassworks, making his fortune.

By 1633 Digby was experimenting with glass production, when he received a visit from a former manager of Mansell’s glassworks, James Howell. Howell wanted Digby to apply some of his wondrous Powder on a wound he had sustained breaking up a duel. Astonishingly, the powder worked its magic and a friendship was forged.

The combination of Digby’s alchemical knowledge and Mansell’s technical expertise also worked wonders. They worked out that the heat of a furnace could be increased still further by using tunnels to draw in oxygen. They also saw that the higher the temperature, the stronger and thicker the glass. Within a couple of years Digby had perfected a technique for producing a bottle that was a characteristic dark green or brown in colour, all the better for protecting the wine from ultraviolet rays, with strong, thick glass walls and a distinctive punt, a conical depression at the bottom of the bottle which strengthened it at its weakest point.    

Under licence from Mansell, Digby opened a furnace in the Forest of Dean at Newnham-on-Severn, an area with a plentiful supply of coal, and cracked the problem of how to mass produce strong, cheap bottles. This type of glass was now strong enough to store wines with high internal pressure, making the production of drinks like champagne possible. It is still called by the French verre Anglais.

But misfortune dogged Digby. He fought as a Cavalier in the Civil War and was forced to flee the country when the Roundheads triumphed. His rivals were quick to claim the kudos for inventing his cheaper, stronger form of bottle. Following the Restoration, Digby got his just desserts in 1662 when Parliament awarded him a patent for his endeavours. He could claim his crown as the inventor of the modern wine bottle. Much good it did him as he died three years later.

To us Digby’s wine bottle would look odd, having a fat bottom and a short neck. Over time, though, modifications were made, reducing its bottom and extending the neck. In 1821, Ricketts of Bristol was awarded a patent for developing a machine which could knock out identically sized bottles of a shape that we would recognise today.

Next time you pour a glass of wine, raise a toast to Sir Kenelm Digby, rightly described by the biographer, John Aubrey, as “the most accomplished Cavalier of his time”.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone, the stories of 50 inventors who had to fight to get their just desserts.

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