Last weekend, while killing time in Detroit before a flight, I wandered into the Henry Ford Museum. If you haven't had a chance to visit this monstrous attraction, make plans now. It’s incredible.
I was there for three hours and saw only a small portion of what the museum has to offer. There are huge machinery collections, transportation exhibits and much, much more – planes, trains and automobiles, oh my!
I was especially intrigued with one particular machine. The Corning Glass Ribbon Machine. Before the invention of this machine, every light bulb was hand blown. As you can imagine, this process was painstakingly slow and expensive. But then a man named Will Woods came along and changed the world.
This is his story.
In 1898, Will Woods was a 19-year-old kid looking to pursue his dream of becoming a glassblower. He traveled to the Corning Glass Manufactory in Corning, NY to learn the art.
Thomas Edison had commissioned Corning Glass to manufacture the envelopes for his first electric light bulbs in the early 1880s. At that time, skilled glassblowers called gaffers could produce just two bulbs per minute.
Eight years later, Corning Glass began working on the E-machine, a structure designed to automate the glass blowing process. By 1913, the E-machine could produce a whopping seven bulbs per minute, as opposed to two. Next came the F-machine which could produce up to 48 bulbs.
By this time, Will Woods was a master glass artist. And by 1921, he was convinced he could take the automation process a step further. He conceived the idea of running a flat ribbon of molten glass over a belt with holes in it. Air would “blow” the glass down through the holes creating a bulb shape. He purposed his idea to Mechanical Engineer David Gray. Seeing Woods' vision and realizing the potential impact of such a machine, Gray began construction right away.
Before Woods knew it, the two men were testing a machine that could produce 400,000 blanks in 24 hours. This was five times the output of Machines E and F.
Will Woods' machine changed everything. Electricity was soon more widely available and much less expensive. A single machine had literally taken the place of entire factories. The downside? It put a generation of glass blowers, skilled in an ancient trade, out of work. Ironically, in developing his brilliant machine, Woods eliminated the need for the profession he himself had grown to love and master.
Want to try your hand at the art of glass blowing?
Photos: Taken by Julie Bedford at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.
Article Source: The Corning Ribbon Machine for Incandescent Light Bulb Blanks; American Society of Mechanical Engineers; 1983.