Corning's illustrious history with glass
March 4, 2013
by Mark Ollig

The future is flexible. The future is here. So says Corning, the famous glassmaker company.

I originally began writing this column about Corning’s new product called Willow Glass, which is lightweight, and extremely flexible.

However, while researching it, I stumbled across Corning’s history of glass production, and found myself immersed reading about their many glass innovations.

It was 1879, and Thomas Edison had created an incandescent electric light; however, he was in need of a “bulb-shaped glass encasement.”

The folks at Corning made the glass bulb he needed.

In those days, glass bulbs were made one at a time, being handcrafted by a skilled worker who would make several hundred of them each day.

Corning later developed a mass-production method for creating the bulbs, which reduced production costs, making them more affordable.

In 1908, these “glass envelopes,” as Corning called them, accounted for half of their business.

America’s railroads in the early days of the 20th century used portable, kerosene-lighted, hand-signaling lanterns containing a glass globe bordered by a metal frame.

The glass globes would occasionally shatter, due to heat and cold conditions which caused them to expand and contract.

Corning solved this problem in 1912, by creating a new low expansion glass, which was able to withstand extreme hot and cold temperature changes.

The new glass signaling lanterns were extremely durable, and the need for replacing glass globes was significantly reduced.

Corning began exploring other uses for this heavy-duty, heat-resistant glass material.

The following year, a Corning physicist, Dr. Jesse Littleton, used a piece of heat-resistant glass to bake a cake with. The heat-resistant glass held up “beautifully throughout the baking process,” according to Corning. By the way, Littleton’s wife baked the cake.

By 1915, Corning had developed a new line of glass cookware under the Pyrex brand name.

Around 1926, two Corning engineers invented a high-speed “ribbon machine,” which could produce 400,000 glass bulbs within a 24-hour period.

By 1933, this ribbon machine was also making the glass for vacuum tubes used in radios.

During this same time, Corning was turning out large glass bulbs used for the cathode ray tubes in electronic oscilloscopes, and experimental televisions.

In 1934, Corning Glass Work’s Dr. J. Franklin Hyde, an organic chemist, created a type of sticky-glue material that was a cross between plastic and glass.

This material would change from liquid to a rubbery state.

Hyde’s “silicone” compounds are today commonly used for a variety of applications.

His continued research led to the process of producing a highly purified silica compound, using a method called vapor disposition.

This silica compound would be used in several products, including windows, mirrors in telescopes, optical lenses, and optical fibers.

In 1935, Dr. George McCauley, a physicist at the Corning Glass Works, designed and directed the production of the largest piece of glass; a 200-inch mirror to be used in the Hale Telescope, located in California.

The 200-inch mirror was carefully packed and transported to its final location via a specially-designed railroad flatcar. Its final route was traveled atop a large semi-flatbed trailer truck, which included an armed guard standing upon a large, wooden-box encasement containing the mirror.

Because of World War II, the telescope could not be completed until 1948.

The Hale Telescope is still in use today at the Palomar Observatory in North San Diego County, CA.

The mirrored glass in the Hubble Space Telescope was also made by Corning.

In 1952, Dr. S. Donald Stookey discovered, by accident, an overheated piece of photosensitive glass inside an oven that had malfunctioned.

The overheated glass had crystallized to a solid; taking on a milky-white, glazed appearance, and it was very resilient.

The newly named Pyroceram glass was virtually unbreakable. You could cook with it, and when fashioned into a container, keep food hot or cold.

Stookey had discovered the glass-ceramic material which is known today as CorningWare.

In 1960, a heat-resistant “space window,” made by Corning Glass Works, was installed on the side of a Mercury space capsule.

Corning also produced the heat-resistant windows used in the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, and, for the space shuttles.

It was in 1970, when Corning began commercial production of fiber optic cables using its glass strand technology.

By 2007, mobile device makers needed a durable, damage-resistant, glass display cover that repelled scratches, and did not crack if dropped.

Corning answered with their Gorilla Glass product.

Today, Gorilla Glass is found in most mobile devices, personal computers, computing tablets, televisions, and other display devices.

Corning recently created a bendable, ultra-slim glass called Willow Glass, which they showed at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Produced using fusion forming, Willow Glass contains heat-resistant borosilicate properties, and it’s only as thick as a business card.

Willow Glass can be easily rolled through the production spools to be used during the assembly of flexible display screens.

The properties of the glass substrate allows insertion of an electroluminescent light source, so a glass panel can be wrapped around a wall to illuminate, provide information or both.

Next year, look to see some exciting new flexible electronic devices using Corning’s Willow Glass.

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