I Wish I'd Known Him Personally
Got a pair of photochromic glasses nearby (or on your face)? How about some CorningWare® tucked away in your kitchen? Or some Visions® cookware? Do you cook on a glass-top electric stovetop? These now-common items wouldn’t have been possible without the curiosity, observation skills, ingenuity, and patience of S. Donald Stookey. As a glass pioneer, scientist, and inventor, he’s probably done more to change the world of glass and our lives during his 47+ years at Corning than we realize.
At Left: Stookey at work on photosensitive gold-ruby glass.
I came to know him at least in print while researching the history of CorningWare, and once I met its inventor, the entire trajectory of this blog post changed. You can’t talk about that ubiquitous cookware and dinnerware—or any of those items I named above—without him, and you can’t talk about him without noticing the salient qualities he embodied. Although he died in 2014 at the age of 99, his legacy is far from over. He is, at least by one writer’s estimate, “the greatest glass scientist of the 20th century” (ACerS).
Not only was he a brilliant man, he held his intellect in check with what I would say is the chain of humility. Stookey had, in addition to his career in research in the glass world, a taste for adventure, and according to his friend and colleague, George H. Beall, on at least two occasions, nearly lost his life because of it. It’s not the many successful adventures—and Stookey had many according to Beall—that remind you of your mortality and mere humanity, but the close calls. I have no doubt that those played a role in making Stookey who he was.
Beall recounts one of those adventures, a fishing trip in Canada above the Arctic Circle. As the pilot was landing their float plane on a lake, the wake from another plane taking off caused a pilot error and the plane flipped as it hit the water. Stookey, his brother, Dave, and the pilot were all somehow able to escape the confines of the upside-down plane in the icy water and were rescued by Inuit inhabitants at the other side of the lake (Beall). Nothing like a good fishing trip to escape the confines of the lab.
But in the lab Stookey relentlessly pursued his curiosity. In a probably grossly oversimplified way of stating what he did, he basically studied the crystal formation of various metal oxides and other elements in glass batches, by themselves and in combinations, and the effects of varying amounts of each when exposed to UV, heat, other outside processes, or to each other.
In fact, how these elements reacted to heat (what kilnforming glass artists call “heatwork”) is one of the primary ways Stookey discovered the many permutations of glass and ceramic materials and how to combine them.
And before I lose you, we’re back now at my original question—how did CorningWare come to be? The simple answer is a lab accident--speaking of heat--a very happy and lucrative one, it turns out. As Beall recounts, Stookey had invented a light-sensitive glass he called Fotoform®, originally intended for possible use in the new television tube industry. According to Beall, it was easily etched and could be made into very delicate but strong shapes like the one below.
Right: Fotoform Lace
He put a plate of it into the kiln for repeated heat-treating. But the kiln controller stuck in the “on” position. When he realized after some time that the kiln was malfunctioning, he reached in with tongs and grabbed the extremely hot (1652⁰ F) plate of glass out, only to have it slip and fall to the floor, “clanging like steel,” (Stookey’s words, according to Beall), but it didn’t break. The glass had become a ceramic material—which Stookey patented as Fotoceram®, which eventually led him to invent CorningWare by changing the elements and their amounts added to the glass. (Beall).
Don Stookey with CorningWare
CorningWare is still being made, but Stookey’s original formula is only being manufactured in Europe through World Kitchens / Keraglass (Verderame). If you DO have some of the original CorningWare, it’s worth A LOT of money. Look it up online; pieces can easily sell for $4,000 and up. Verderame’s Web site listed below is a good place to start your search and get good information.
Corning’s “Legendary Scientists” web page notes Stookey considered himself a “modern-day alchemist” and glass research “the ‘real unknown’" (Corning). He had a long residency at Corning beginning in 1940, where he influenced generations of scientists—and he still is. He received the National Medal of Technology in 1986 from President Ronald Reagan, which, according to Beall, he was most proud of. During his career, he racked up more than 60 patents relating to glass products (Corning).
I am not a researcher, but I am a glass worker, as drawn to it as Stookey was. His research philosophy speaks to me in some way across the decades, I guess because it goes beyond just scientific inquiry. Shared by and elaborated on by his friend and college G.H. Beall, these principles below reach far beyond any lab. They are:
Be observant, diligent, and optimistic. Don was always an optimist, especially in research, but also in his outlook on the world in general.
Science can be fun, and the scientist-inventor need neither be mad, nor a genius, nor confined to an ivory tower. Don was a practical man and believed strongly in the value of useful research. He took a dim view of the idea that pure research was somehow superior to exploratory research and academic research is somehow contaminated by cooperation with industry.
The unique factor in promoting my career has been the proper mix of motivation and imagination, and the opportunity to exercise them. Don was especially grateful for the freedom he was given to do independent research at the Corning Glass Works and had great respect for the Houghton family and R&D director, Dr. William Armistead. He became a lifetime friend of former Corning Chief Executive Officer, Amory Houghton, Jr.
The increasingly popular use of research teams has its place, but original ideas come one at a time. Teamwork applies to later stages of innovation and should not displace the original inventor. Don was unhappy to see an apparent modern trend away from individual thought and accomplishment.
An embryo invention is a fragile flower, easily killed by the pessimism that seems to be a predominant characteristic of most adults. Don did not easily tolerate naysayers.
Meetings, fire calls to solve today’s production problems, and assignments to improve on known inventions are general enemies to the birth of new inventions. Don understood the necessity of continual product development and crises problem-solving; indeed, he admired and gave full credit to those who made contributions in harnessing his inventions. He did, however, believe that those few who were enthusiastic and skilled in fundamental and exploratory research should be allowed to follow their instincts.
I am certain that had I known S. Donald Stookey personally, I’d have asked him about glass processes while sitting around a campfire watching a beer bottle melt in the flames, or about his latest adventure while being a go-fer in his lab. But I’ll take what I can get now. My next read will be his autobiography, Explorations in Glass.
ACerS (American Ceramic Society). “S. Donald Stookey.” N.d. Web.
Beall, George H. “Dr. S. Donald (Don) Stookey (1915-2014): Pioneering Researcher and Adventurer.” Front. Mater. 3:37. doi: 103389/fmats.2016.000337.
Corning, Inc. “Dr. S. Donald Stookey.” Legendary Scientists. Corning, Inc. n.d. Web.
Verderame, Lori, Ph.D. “Vintage CorningWare.” Dr. Lori Antique Appraisals. Web. N.d.