Sand has been used for construction since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. In the 15th century, an Italian artisan figured out how to turn sand into fully transparent glass, which made possible the microscopes, telescopes, and other technologies that helped drive the Renaissance’s scientific revolution.
But at the dawn of the 20th century, almost all of the world’s large structures — apartment blocks, office buildings, churches, palaces, fortresses — were still made with stone, brick, clay, or wood. The tallest buildings stood fewer than ten stories high. Roads were mostly paved with broken stone, IF at all. Glass in the form of windows or tableware was a relatively rare and expensive luxury.
The mass manufacture and deployment of concrete and glass changed all that, reshaping how and where people lived in the industrialized world. Decades later, digital technology, powered by silicon chips and other sophisticated hardware made with sand, began reshaping the global economy in ways gargantuan and quotidian.
Today, your life depends on sand. You are surrounded by it almost every minute of your day. Chances are good you woke up in a building made at least partly out of sand. Even if the walls are made of brick or wood, the foundation is most likely concrete. Maybe it’s also plastered with stucco, which is mostly sand.
The paint on your walls likely contains finely ground silica sand to make it more durable, and may include other forms of high-purity sands to increase its brightness, oil absorption, and colour consistency.
You flicked on the light, provided by a glass bulb made from melted sand. You meandered to the bathroom, where you brushed your teeth over a sink made of sand-based porcelain, using water filtered through sand at your local purification plant.