Until the 16th century, window glass or flat glass was generally cut from large discs (or rondels) of crown glass. Larger sheets of glass were made by blowing large cylinders which were cut open and flattened, then cut into panes. Most window glass in the early 19th century was made using the cylinder method. The 'cylinders' were 6 to 8 feet (180 to 240 cm) long and 10 to 14 inches (25 to 36 cm) in diameter, limiting the width that panes of glass could be cut, and resulting in windows divided by transoms into rectangular panels.
The first advances in automating glass manufacturing were patented in 1848 by Henry Bessemer, an English engineer. His system produced a continuous ribbon of flat glass by forming the ribbon between rollers. This was an expensive process, as the surfaces of the glass needed polishing. If the glass could be set on a perfectly smooth body this would reduce costs considerably. Attempts were made to form flat glass on a molten tin bath, notably in the US. Several patents were granted, but this process was unworkable.
Before the development of float glass, larger sheets of plate glass were made by casting a large puddle of glass on an ironsurface, and then polishing both sides, a costly process. From the early 1920s, a continuous ribbon of plate glass was passed through a lengthy series of inline grinders and polishers, reducing glass losses and cost.
Glass of lower quality, sheet glass, was made by drawing upwards from a pool of molten glass a thin sheet, held at the edges by rollers. As it cooled the rising sheet stiffened and could then be cut. The two surfaces were of lower quality i.e. not as smooth or uniform as those of float glass. This process continued in use for many years after the development of float glass.
Between 1953 and 1957, Sir Alastair Pilkington and Kenneth Bickerstaff of the UK's Pilkington Brothers developed the first successful commercial application for forming a continuous ribbon of glass using a molten tin bath on which the molten glass flows unhindered under the influence of gravity. The success of this process lay in the careful balance of the volume of glass fed onto the bath, where it was flattened by its own weight. Full scale profitable sales of float glass were first achieved in 1960..