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An Historic Event

The Legend of the Gathers is a mash-up, if you will, of genuine, bona fide historical happenings and a dab of creative supernatural embellishment.

First, the history.

You might think a Fortune 300 company like Corning Incorporated, one of the world’s premiere innovators in glass science and technology, has always been successful. You’d be wrong. 

After the glass company first moved from Brooklyn to the small town of Corning in 1868, it specialized in making exceptional glass that was primarily used by engravers to fashion exquisite cut glass objects. The sort of intricate and spectacular items folks have on display these days. Collectible pieces.

Crystal City Gallery Historic Cut Glass
Crystal City Gallery Historic Cut Glass courtesy The Corning Museum of Glass

While engravers like John Hoare and T.G. Hawkes put Corning (the town and the glass factory) on the map for their magnificent cut glass, helping earn the town the moniker America’s Crystal City, the company Corning Flint Glass Works apparently struggled early on. After all, cut glass was a luxury item.

If the community (and the company) were to survive, let alone thrive as they do today, they needed products that appealed to the masses. Functional objects that could be used by everyone. 

It wasn’t until 1877 that another avenue presented itself as the company began making signal lamps for the railroad. Then, a couple years later, everything changed. 

Erie Station in Corning
Historic Erie Railway Station in Corning credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS ILL, 16-CHIG, 33-2

It’s Kind of a Big Deal

For a struggling glass company, the chance to create something for young inventor Thomas Edison (he was only 33 years-old at the time) was more than likely perceived as merely another job opportunity. One that was certainly welcome, but the future significance of this particular undertaking was probably not at the front of anyone’s mind. Aside, perhaps, from the inventor.

That there are discrepancies (or at least a bit of cloudiness) with regards to just what happened and when and how surrounding some of the particulars of this event (for example, apparently an unpublished manuscript mentions that after Edison contacted Corning Glass Works the company "sent a representative to Menlo Park . . . on June 21, 1880, while other sources suggest Edison sent someone to Corning at some point prior to November of 1880 when the first shipment of 307 dozen blanks was sent to him, and some accounts also assert that it was a shop boy who blew the glass bubble that best matched what was needed).

Of course, those slight ambiguities also lends themselves quite wonderfully to the mystery behindThe Legend!

Young Thomas Edison Around 1870
Thomas Edison Around 1870 courtesy Brady-Handy photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The year Brooklyn Flint Glass moved from Brooklyn to Corning (1868) was the same year then twenty-one-year-old Edison patented his first invention. Just over a decade later, in 1879, Edison received the first of two patents for developing a special filament through which he passed an electrical current creating incandescent light. What we call today, the lightbulb.

Edison Bulb blown by glass blower Ludwig Boehm from Igniting a Revolution courtesy National Museum of American History
Edison Bulb blown by glass blower Ludwig Boehm from Igniting a Revolution Exhibit courtesy National Museum of American History

Edison wasn’t the first person to invent lighting, but his filaments allowed the illumination to last longer which meant it had greater potential for a broader application of uses. It was something that might be useful to more people. 

Still, Edison needed special glass to house the filaments which got quite hot. Regular window glass or glass jars wouldn’t suffice.

Enter Corning Flint Glass Works. 

If you're a fan of videos, be sure to watch this day in the life video about Edison from the Library of Congress. 

Illustration from The Legend of the Gathers Protectors of the Light picture book art by Erin Nowak
Illustration from The Legend of the Gathers: Protectors of the Light picture book, art by Erin Nowak

It seems Edison connected with Corning Flint Glass Works to make those early glass containers.

At first, the bulbs were made by hand and it was a slow process. The first day, 165 glass blanks were made and it took all day. On November 17, 1880, Corning sent 307 dozen bulbs to Edison and in the first year, Corning made 3,684 bulbs for Edison.

Less than fifty years later, Corning’s role in sharing light with the rest of the world would change again when William J. Woods, a former glassblower, and his colleague David E. Gray, an engineer, invented the high-speed ribbon machine which created 400,000 bulb blanks in a 24-hour period. Here's another video about the famous ribbon machine

McCauley and Hostetter Standing in Front of 200-Inch Disk courtesy The Corning Museum of Glass
McCauley and Hostetter Standing in Front of 200-Inch Disk courtesy The Corning Museum of Glass

As a result of this mass production, glass bulbs became more affordable, allowing electric light into homes around the globe.

This aspect of the historic story isn’t something most folks learn about in school. But for a small town built around the culture of glass, the event was profound

It established, for one thing, that the versatile material was a viable resource to be used for creating a variety of items (not just collectible art), objects that have become such ubiquitous and indelible parts of our everyday lives that we tend to take them and the glass from which they're made for granted.

Over the years since the late 1800s, Corning Flint Glass has evolved into Corning Incorporated, a world leader in the use of glass for scientific and technological applications (like the massive 200 inch telescope disk pictured above).   

While this point in history—where the story of glass and the story of light intersect—is at the heart of The Legend of the Gathers, there’s still one significant element missing. The mystery!

Learn about the mystery here.

glass history Corning Glass Works Factory
Corning Glass Works Factory Historic Image courtesy Corning-Painted Post Historical Society

More historical facts taken from The Generations of Corning: The Life and Times of a Global Corporation by Davis Dyer and Daniel Gross:

  • James and Joseph Lear came to Corning from Brooklyn when the company moved.
  • October 21 1879 Edison produces first successful incandescent electric light - a filament that sustained a brilliant light when heated by electric current. 
  • In 1879, a 32-year-old inventor named Thomas Edison approached Corning with his idea for the lightbulb. He needed just the right glass to encase the delicate filaments that comprised the lightbulb; glass that was stronger and more damage-resistant than glass typically used in windows and jars. By 1880, Edison had designated Corning as his sole supplier of the glass bulbs he needed to bring light to the wider world.
  • At that time, bulbs are made by hand, one piece at a time. A skilled craftsman can produce several hundred bulbs a day. Later, Corning would develop a new manufacturing process that would mass produce these bulbs, making Edison's electric lamp more affordable to the masses.
Incandescent Lamp and Other Inventions by Thomas Edison courtesy Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park
Incandescent Lamp and Other Inventions courtesy Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park

If you're a history buff or want to learn more about Thomas Edison, a few other resources you might find interesting include the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park where the inventor first lit up an entire street.

Explore the wonderful information found on the website Lighting a Revolution which accompanies an exhibition at National Museum of American History examining the process of invention (it's advised to call ahead to see if the exhibit is open). And here are some Edison-related images from the museum. 

You can also learn about Edison at The Henry Ford which explores the history of innovation. 

Speaking of innovation, the Southern Finger Lakes region has been home to some pretty remarkable inventors, innovators, visionaries, and revolutionaries. Visit the Destination of Innovation for more unique local stories.