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Through the Looking Glass With Corning

Through the Looking Glass With Corning

Photo credit: Corning

Corning Incorporated is like that really amazing kindergarten teacher you had, the one who got you interested in reading, who inspired your life-long passion for astronomy, the reason you still believe, with your whole heart, that sharing is caring. Like that Kindergarten teacher, few acknowledge Corning for its transformative role in our day-to-day lives, for the brighter future it has given us, for the practical tools we’d be lost without.

For 166 years, Corning has revolutionized all of our lives from light bulb glass to diesel particulate filters, and, to this day, continues quietly molding and shaping us, thanklessly, in the background. And thank goodness for that.

Corning was founded in 1851 by Amory Houghton. But it made its first real commercial splash in 1879, when it developed a bulb-shaped glass encasement for Thomas Edison’s new incandescent lamp. By 1908, these handmade glass envelopes comprised half of Corning’s business.

Corning's incandescent light bulb. Photo credit: Corning

In the intervening years it has (deep breath) invented: a heat-resistant glass baking dish known as PYREX (1913), a high-speed machine that cranks out 400,000 light bulbs a day (1926), cathode ray tubes, which were used in early TV sets (1933), silicone (1934), an essential component of the Hale Telescope (1935), the special high-melting material used in eyeglasses today (1944), television glass (1948), CorningWare glass ceramics (1952), the windows on space crafts (starting in 1961), flat glass, which is later used in liquid crystal displays or LCDS (1964), optical fiber with leads to fiber optic telecommunications (1970), automotive emissions control (1972), 26-foot mirrors for the Subaru Telescope (1997), drug compound identification technology (2006) optical fiber that can be bent at 90-degree angles without losing its signal (2007), damage-resistant glass for smartphones, tables, TVs and more with Gorilla Glass (2007), a new synthetic surface that enables stem cell growth (2010).

The Friendship 7 was engineered using Corning-supplied windows. Photo credit: Corning 

In 1998, Corning sold off its consumer lines (CorningWare, Pyrex, Visions cookware, Corelle tableware), to Borden, so that it could focus on its core five pillars — optical communications, mobile consumer electronics, display, automotive and life science. In other words, Corning has always been more in the business of creating business for others than promoting its own products. And when it does help make products — it is one of the main suppliers to Apple Inc. — its name isn’t on the box.

In addition to holding the hands of so many inventors and helping to usher in technology that the world would be unable to exist as it does without (that light bulb that’s on over there! the computer screen this article is displayed upon! your smartphone! the dish your dinner is baking away in!), it has also helped support the community in which it is headquartered.

While so many other mighty American makers of things — especially ones headquartered in the Rust Belt of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio — have failed, and brought down the community in which they were located, Corning has flourished.

Its eponymous hometown, population 11,000+ as of 2016, was named for investor Erastus Corning. Incorporated in 1890, Corning has maintained its stable economic footing as a result.

Just last month, Corning announced an investment in Corning Valor Glass that will create 185 new jobs in the Southern Tier of New York. New York State has taken notice, giving Corning a $6 million capital grant to purchase manufacturing equipment and make infrastructure improvements.

Photo credit: Corning

“Corning has been a beacon of enterprise and innovation for decades, and this new expansion builds on our efforts to spur development and job growth for the Southern Tier," Gov. Cuomo said in a statement at the time. “By working with local leaders and the Regional Economic Development Council, our strategic Southern Tier Soaring plan is putting the region on the right track and giving Corning the tools and confidence to grow and expand their world-class products in the region.”

Not that the company hasn’t had its setbacks. Most recently, the dotcom crash of 2001 devastated the entire optical-fiber telecom industry -- Corning included, sending its share price from $113 to $1.10 between 2000 and 2002. Its revenue plummeted from $6.9 billion in 2000 to $3.2 billion in 2002. In 2016, it made its way back, with $9.39 billion in revenue, thanks in large part to the Gorilla Glass it supplies to make billions of iPhones.

Worldwide, it employs 45,000 people, with research centers in Europe and Asia. But its heart still beats at One Riverfront Plaza in Corning.

Corning Headquarters, Corning, NY. Photo credit: Corning

While it’s tempting to believe that innovation and brilliant minds alone drove Corning’s success, there’s an argument to be made that its commitment to culture, in all of its guises, has also been essential to its incredible strength and resilience.

Supporting art and culture has always been a core value of Corning’s. The most visible example is The Corning Museum of Glass, founded in 1951. The nonprofit museum explores the substance’s 3,500-year-history in culture and art (think ancient Egyptian pharaoh glass portrait, contemporary sculptures). It also devotes exhibits to the science and technology of glass innovation (think optics, vessels, windows). Corning also brings Hot Glass Demos on the road and offers a traveling design program, GlassLab, workshops on glassmaking and funds scholarly projects about glass.  

Photo credit: Corning Museum of Glass

In addition, Corning established the Corning Incorporated Foundation in 1952, and since then, has given more than $154 million to communities where Corning employees live and work. Areas of focus include education, culture, community and health/human services.  

Corning’s commitment to a thriving, healthy culture applies to the environment it attempts to cultivate within as well. In the current environment, when it seems one laudable figure and company after another are being hit with horrific accusations of impropriety and assault, Corning’s approach to office life could serve as a model for others.

Just recently, Corning received a perfect score on the 2018 Corporate Equality Index and was recognized by the Human Rights Campaign as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality” for the 13th consecutive year.

Although few members of the public know how grateful they should be for Corning, some of the iconic inventors it touched are well aware of the company’s impact. On the day Apple shipped its first iPhones, Steve Jobs sent Corning CEO Wendell Weeks a note that said simply, “We couldn’t have done it without you.” According to tech lore, it is still one of the few personal momentos Weeks has up in his office.

Photo credit: Corning

Maybe it’s time you sent that kindergarten teacher a note, too.

The Corning Museum of Glass is located at One Museum Way in Corning; (607) 937-5371. Cmog.org