Working glass at Corning

May 6, 2013, 12:11 PM UTC
In the applied materials lab at Corning, researchers mix glass to scientists' specifications, pulling it out of 2,912° F ovens and pouring it into a platinum container to cool.
Photo: Benjamin Lowy

To make glass is to know failure. A glassmaker begins with powders of oxides, stirring them into a platinum crucible, then sticking the batch in an oven heated to 2,912° F, where the oxides liquefy into a molten state. He then removes the crucible, and the liquid cools and hardens into glass — an amorphous solid. A team analyzes its chemical makeup and “seeds” (a.k.a. bubbles). But to really know glass, to get a sense of its strength, you must break it. So someone bends and hammers and sometimes throws baseballs at the glass until it scratches or cracks or shatters. He studies the fractures, which reveal the glass’s secrets. Glass fails, the researchers learn from the failure, and the cycle repeats.

The making and breaking and remaking of glass has been happening for 162 years at Corning. One of Corning’s early customers was Thomas Edison, who needed a way to mass-manufacture his incandescent lights. The company constructed the ribbon machine — “The only machine that’s made nearly every light bulb you’ve seen in your life,” says David Morse, Corning’s chief technology officer. Morse arrived at Corning’s upstate New York headquarters (the town is a company town; it bears the company name) 36 years ago to work on creating glass that would respond to light.

Soon Morse’s work shifted to telecom. In the 1970s Corning began developing glass tubes that could carry information in pulses of light: fiber optics. As the Internet rose, so did Corning’s stock. But then the dotcom bubble burst, and the company found itself in need of another hit. Serendipitously, Steve Jobs called. He wanted a thin and very strong glass for Apple’s new smartphone. And he wanted it in production in six months. Corning (No. 326 on the Fortune 500) dusted off and modified an old project it had first pitched to the auto industry 50 years earlier, modified it, and ended up with Gorilla Glass, a line that nearly all glass touchscreens are made of today. Sales have doubled every year since it was first introduced in 2008.

Glass can be made even thinner, stronger, better. Teams at Corning are embedding inorganic, bacteria-killing ions into glass; making bendable glass so thin it can be rolled up in great spools; and designing a new type of fiber-optic cable that can carry cellphone signals and pick up Wi-Fi. “The scale of glass, what you can do with it today — it’s wonderfully different,” Morse says.

This story is from the May 20, 2013 issue of Fortune.