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Mountain Home Magazine

The Legend of the Gathers

Oct 01, 2018 03:00AM

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”~Albert Einstein

We learn early in school that Thomas Edison devoted years to experimenting with thousands of materials in his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, all in his tenacious quest to invent an incandescent electric light. He finally found a lament in 1879 made of carbonized cotton threads that chased away darkness. Overlooked in the legend surrounding the iconic inventor was his need for a special glass “envelope” to protect the lament.

By the summer of 1880 Edison had improved electric lights with carbonized paper that burned for 600 hours. His incandescent light held enormous potential for improving the way people lived. He dispatched a representative to Corning, New York, home of the Corning Glass Company. The business had earned a national reputation for producing the glass in the mechanical railroad signal lamps standing along rail lines crisscrossing America. These lamps guided engine drivers for running speed or for when to halt.

Edison’s point man climbed aboard a train to Corning to visit Corning Glass. Like many businesses, the company employed a crew of adolescent shop boys. They labored under an experienced master glass maker, called a gaffer.

Shop boys shoveled coal to fire ovens that made glass in the ancient tradition of heating sand and other materials to their melting point, above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Shop boys, called gathers, were entrusted with sticking a long, hollowed metal pipe into the oven to pull out a gob of orange gas, hot as lava. Gathers rolled the pipe in their hands to keep the gob from dripping on the floor. After a few minutes the lava cooled enough to blow into the pipe and form a bubble, which the gaffer shaped with tongs and paddles into a finished product.

As Dave DeGolyer, communications manager for the Steuben County Conference and Visitors Bureau, explained, Edison’s deputy met with the top gaffer, James Lear, about designing a prototype light bulb. The glass had to be tougher than windows or Mason jars.

“Lear was trying to do a variation of the wine goblet,” DeGolyer says. “That didn’t work for Edison’s new lights. They used a lot of energy and made the lament get very hot. The lights required a vacuum so the air wouldn’t react with the lament and cause it to burn out. A shop boy at the time was swinging his gather, loaded with a gob of hot glass at the end, in the air. en the boy blew into the pipe and made a bubble of glass. At that moment, the representative from Edison’s company said that was more on point than what James Lear was doing. That was what they went with.”

In a movie, that eureka moment for Edison’s original light bulb would be highlighted by a camera panning faces and expressing astonishment, all as orchestra music swells. But on the shop floor that day it was just business as usual—once the problem was solved, workers shifted to production. Lear’s gathers and gaffers teamed up to blow more bubbles and shape them with tongs and paddles. They needed a whole day to turn out 165 bulbs. By late October, Corning Glass sent 3,600 handmade bulbs by rail to Edison’s Menlo Park lab. Corning’s bulbs enabled the inventor to provide more affordable electric lamps to the masses.

“Those light bulbs changed the world,” notes Coleen Fabrizi, executive director of Corning’s historic Gaffer District. “We all take the technology that we have in hand for granted. To think about that backstory is incredible.”

Later three gathers each claimed he was the shop boy who inspired Edison’s deputy to make his call. All three may have been right. It’s possible that Edison’s delegate had the time to observe them casually pull molten glass on a blow pipe from the oven, wave the pipe in the air, and blow a bubble—demonstrating the reliability and simplicity of the process.

Corning Glass soon developed high-speed machines that boosted production of light bulbs. In the 1930s the company had grown into a major international force and developed bulbs for radios. Corning Glass produced bulbs for cathode ray tubes in television sets, then television glass, and the white glass-ceramic CorningWare dishes famed for going from hot baking ovens straight into freezers. Today Corning Glass supplies thin, damage-resistant cover glass for smart phones, personal computers, and flat-screen TVs.

DeGolyer recently published a chapbook, The Legend of the Gathers, with a dash of mystery about the events behind the pivotal day a young gather accidentally created the first incandescent light bulb. The Steuben County Conference and Visitors Bureau, with support from Corning’s Gaffer District and the Gaffer District Business Association, has created a new twelve-day celebration, Days of Incandescence, based on The Legend of the Gathers, from October 20 through Halloween on October 31.

The celebration in the Gaffer District includes a period costume contest, walking tours, and an urban arts crawl to visit local art studios, galleries, and the Rockwell Museum. Activities are all punctuated by mysterious lights shining after dark in unexpected places. Events culminate on Halloween night downtown on Centerway Square with a reading of The Legend of the Gathers.

For more information visit corningfingerlakes.com.