In one form or another, marbles are one of the world’s oldest games. They are so popular and endearing, it’s believed there are upwards of 400 million people around the world who collect them.
In fact, some toy historians believe that the early games played with marbles eventually morphed – after hundreds or even thousands of years – into snooker, pool, bowling and even pinball!
But how many people know how marbles are manufactured? In this article you’ll discover the answer to the question of how glass marbles are produced, and how long people have been playing with them. Here’s the story of how marbles are made.
Marbles - A Short History from Rock to Roll
The history of marbles goes back around 5,000 years. No-one knows for sure who invented marbles, but small round balls made of clay, stone and flint have been excavated from archaeological sites as far apart as Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan, the ashes of Pompeii in Italy, the tombs of ancient Egyptians, (including the famous pharaoh Tutenkhamun) and the pyramids of the South American Aztecs.
In those days, the question of how marbles were made was an easy one to answer. They simply shaped small balls from stones or wet clay left to harden in the sun. Some cultures even played with roundish nuts like hazelnuts and walnuts!
The ancient Romans played a game of marbles called Nine Holes, which was popular across the Roman world, while in North America, Native American burial sites have uncovered intricately engraved marbles made of stone and clay.
However, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that marbles arrived in Britain, most likely from The Netherlands, Belgium or Luxembourg.
Marvellous Machine-Made Marbles
It’s believed that the first glass marbles were made by glassmakers, who would collect all the small off-cuts from their day’s work, shape them into small balls and take them home for their children to play with.
They became known as ‘end-of-the-day marbles’, and became increasingly popular. However, the processes of how marbles are manufactured has come on leaps and bounds since then and the modern process of how marbles are made is fascinating.
First, a mixture of sand, silica, soda lime and various other ingredients are melted together for up to 28 hours in a huge furnace at a temperature of around 1300°C. Next, the molten glass – which by now has the consistency of thick treacle – is moved into a flow tank and the superheated glass is injected with more molten glass, but this time it’s coloured glass to create the beautiful swirls and patterns we recognise.
It is this injection process that takes place during the manufacture of glass marbles that determines the specific colours and patterns that are created. Iron oxide in the glass creates green marbles, cobalt is a deep blue colour and uranium oxide is yellow-green. The way the injection is administered determines the final pattern of the marble. Modern technology can now feed two or more colours into the same marble for a stunning multicoloured effect.
Once the glass has been injected with the colours and patterns, it comes out of the tank in a long strand and is cut to size. These small pieces of glass (known as globs) are then shifted through rollers that shape the glass into perfect spheres while cooling it.
The cooled and hardened marbles are then poured into containers, where they are sorted by hand. The people in charge of this process will inspect the marbles and remove any defective pieces, which aren’t thrown away but put back in the original furnace to be re-melted. Once quality checked, they then are sorted into batches to be packed up and shipped all over the world.
How are Marbles Made by Hand?
If you thought understanding how marbles are manufactured by machines was interesting, this will blow your socks off!
The glass initially goes through the same process as it does for machine-made marbles. It’s heated to 1,300°C for over a day until it is a thick liquid.
At that stage, the marble maker forms clear liquid glass on the end of a steel rod, and shapes it with a thick pile of wet newspaper which doesn’t stick to the hot glass. After the end is shaped, they roll the glass over thin strands of coloured glass and shape them around the hot glass. Then it’s back in the furnace.
This stage can be repeated up to six or eight times depending on the intricacy of the desired pattern. Finally, a layer of clear glass is added straight out of the furnace.
While the glass is still on the end of the steel rod, the marble maker shapes and sculpts the glass into almost perfect spheres, cutting each marble off as he finishes by placing the end into the top of a pipe and very carefully breaking the connection. The break point is then heated up and smoothed over so the marble is now a complete and perfect sphere.
But the story of how glass marbles are made doesn’t quite end there. The almost finished marbles go back into an oven at a temperature of around 530°C which cools overnight and strengthens the glass.
Like all artisan craftspeople who make beautiful objects by hand, each one will have their own individual ways of doing things, creating their own unique style.
Aggies and Onionskins and Ollies and Cat’s Eyes
Today, there are dozens of different types of marbles, all with great names. For example an Oxblood is usually white with a dark crimson streak resembling the blood of an ox, while a Lutz is a glass marble that contains tiny flakes of copper that glitter and sparkle in the light.
So, if you’re a serious mibster who knows a Toothpaste from a Galaxy and a Clambroth from an Onionskin, and you’re truly ready to knuckle down and play ring taw keepsies with no quitsies, or, you’re just playing with marbles for the first time, if anyone asks you how do they make glass marbles, you can tell them all they need to know.