The Return of the Remarkable Roving Ribbon MachineDec 01, 2021 09:00AM ● By Don Knaus
Wellsboro’s ribbon machines who could scour a scratch or replace saw more of the world and were touched by more hands than many people experience. Let’s call the first one Rosie—an old rumor has it that the engineers and mechanics who first worked on her actually named her “Rosie the Ribbon Machine.” Certainly, the mechanics who repaired her and kept her going always referred to her in the feminine.
The creation of Corning Glass Works (CGW), the idea for the machine was conceived in the Corning Glass factory in Wellsboro. She was incubated and born in a secret development laboratory in Corning’s main New York plant. Rosie was loved by the men who worked on her, the mechanics who made her, and the machinists a broken part. She gave rise to a number of offspring, some of whom became world travelers. Last known to be located in Kentucky, Rosie the Ribbon Machine probably died there.
Like many small towns in the early 1900s, Wellsboro had a factory producing plate glass and window glass. After the plant closed and sat idle due to financial troubles, the Wellsboro town fathers hopped on the Wellsboro and Corning Railroad to bring a proposal to the Corning Glass Works. Why let experienced glass workers—and a fully-equipped glass plant—sit idle? They convinced CGW executives to buy the plant in Wellsboro at 1 Jackson Street and to call back the local glass blowers.
As fate would have it, at that time, Corning Glass was swamped with the demand for glass bulbs for Edison’s electric lights. Each glass bulb was hand blown. They could barely keep up with demand, which had grown ever since the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also known as the 1893 World’s Fair). At that time, there had been great competition for the electric lighting contract, which was won by George Westinghouse, who beat out Thomas Edison. Both inventors contracted with CGW to produce their lightbulbs.
So the Corning Glass Works definitely needed help. They accepted Wellsboro’s offer, making the Wellsboro plant CGW’s original branch operation.
The Corning bigwigs sent nineteen-year-old William “Willy” Woods to manage their new Wellsboro facility. Young though he was, Woods was both brilliant and an expert with glass. From the creation of Edison’s first light bulb, Corning gaffers—the men who grabbed a gob of molten glass to work it—had hand blown each bulb. A very skilled gaffer at top speed could blow two bulbs a minute.
By the time Willy was sent to manage in Wellsboro, Corning Glass had purchased two Empire and Westlake machines that could be paced to cut gobs of a specific size at a given pace. The Empire, simply called the “E Machine,” increased production. The new machine sped output by hundreds of bulbs per shift, but the process was still labor intensive, requiring the gaffers to grab the gob and hand blow each bulb. Those early processes made light bulbs expensive. Electric lighting was a luxury for the rich and well-to-do.
Willy was a master glass blower who worked alongside his men. To start each day, molten glass would be allowed to run onto the floor until the machine was properly calibrated. Men would shovel the glass out of their way. One day when Willy wielded a shovel with a hole in it, he saw the molten glass seep through the hole. It gave him a brilliant idea.
He took it to Corning and CGW began working in a secret development laboratory on what would become the first ribbon machine. Simply put, the machine would draw a ribbon of melted glass across a many-holed channel in the machine and, as the hot glass dripped through each hole into a spinning mold, a puff of air formed the bulb.
Finally perfected in 1926, the original machine was sent to Wellsboro. It increased production by thousands of bulbs each shift. Orders came in for more ribbon machines, and a second shift of workers was soon added. Each descendant of the original ribbon machine incorporated improvements and got a little faster. The last machines constructed grew to twenty-two tons and could produce up to 2,200 bulbs a minute. All bulb production was moved to Wellsboro so CGW could concentrate on its Pyrex line of cookware. As a side note, an ad in a 1944 Wellsboro Agitator lists large Pyrex baking dishes for forty-five cents. In 2021, used Pyrex dishes have been sold for more than ten times their original cost at yard sales.
In 1983, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) listed the CGW Ribbon Machine as one of the top ten engineering wonders of the twentieth century. It stood right alongside Henry Ford’s Model T production and Thomas Edison’s inventions. The ribbon machine was registered as “a landmark that changed the face of world history.” ASME still counts the ribbon machine among modern wonders and one of the ribbon machines is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Another ribbon machine, built and operated in Wellsboro, sits in the Corning Museum of Glass.
What do you do when something you built works? You build another, and another. Rosie had many descendants. Wellsboro CGW held sway in the bulb industry, sending glass envelopes for radio and vacuum television tubes to RCA, Westinghouse, General Electric, Motorola, Emerson, and others. Bulbs for automotive use were shipped to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Light bulb envelopes were shipped to Sylvania, GE, Westinghouse, and Phillips.
CGW sent ribbon machines all over the world. They established a Corning plant in Danville, Kentucky, where the Wellsboro experts built ribbon machines and trained technicians to run them. Some of these traveled to England, Russia, China, Iraq, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, among other places.
World War II
Even before World War II came to our shores in 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the war in Europe was already affecting Americans.
The vast majority of Christmas ornaments produced worldwide were made in Germany. No longer able to get traditional glass ornaments from Germany due to an embargo preventing their export, local folks decided they could produce and then decorate different sizes of their glass bulbs with small modifications to the ribbon machines. The Christmas ornament operation required expansion of several departments, new machinery, and many more workers. For the war years and beyond, Wellsboro became the new capital of glass Christmas ornaments.
The Christmas ornament production line required expansion of departments, new machinery, and many more workers. And adding to the manpower needs some 324 employees of the Corning Glass plant in Wellsboro served in the military during the conflict.
That number was noted in a speech given by D.J. Carr and reported in the December 19, 1945 Wellsboro Agitator. By then, he noted, 103 of those who entered the service were already back at work. Among the employees who served in WWII, eighteen were killed in action.
When the war arrived, virtually every industry in the United States quickly turned to war production. The Corning Glass Works plant in Wellsboro was no exception. The military needed blue envelopes for lighting in submarines to filter out the red band of light from the incandescent bulbs. Lead glass radio tubes were required to repel radiation and were used in soldiers’ field radios. Millions of incandescent lightbulbs were needed for hastily constructed training bases.
Thus the war brought unexpected needs that would become a valuable source of income for Wellsboro CGW. And then there were those Shiny Brites. By 1944, Wellsboro’s glass artisans were shipping Christmas ornaments to Shiny Brite, Rauch, Krebs Bros., and others.
The need for workers was critical. The plant incorporated bus runs to transport workers from neighboring towns, a practice that continued until about 1955. Plant managers had to replace employees who were in the service and add those required for the new decorating department. Nearly all these replacements were women. The bus actually ran to Morris Run, then to Arnot, Blossburg, Covington, Canoe Camp, and Mansfield. A bus in Morris stopped in Antrim and Charleston. Another bus started in Westfield, ran through Elkland and Nelson, hit Lawrenceville, then to Tioga, Holiday, Middlebury, Stokesdale, and Wellsboro. Girls, many of whom had seldom, if ever, visited the “big city” of Wellsboro, were swept into wartime romances and marriages when the beau was home on leave. The “just-married gals” continued to labor at the glass factory. Other workers found romance in the buses or on the factory floor—two dozen couples who met and married, including my parents, because they both worked in the Wellsboro glass plant.
When the plant ran on “War Time,” the federal regulation that women could not legally work after 10 p.m. was rescinded “for the duration.” This meant many ladies worked through the night. During the conflict, the Wellsboro plant earned eleven Army-Navy Production “E” awards. The War Production Board declared that more lime glass was produced in the plant since December 7, 1941 than in any other plant in the world!
From 1940 to 1979, ninety percent of the Christmas ornaments manufactured worldwide were made in Wellsboro. The Wellsboro Christmas ornament business was the envy of the world. As ornament customers visited Wellsboro, men like Max Eckert of Shiny Brite were paraded through the plant like royalty. They watched the decorating operations for hours on end, talking with technicians and operators. Then, bit by bit and piece by piece, some customers began to do their own decorating. In the end, the ornament companies only bought the clear glass bulbs from Wellsboro and, over the years, the decorating department laid off some 400 employees.
GE Files Suit
When life returned to some semblance of normalcy after the war, the Wellsboro glass factory kept humming along until, in 1948, General Electric filed a Sherman Anti-Trust violation against CGW with the Federal Trade Commission. They claimed that Corning was holding a monopoly on a valuable resource—the ribbon machine. The FTC agreed and required Corning to share their knowledge.
CGW complied. When the FTC ordered Corning Glass to share with an American company, a little corporate intrigue led to miffed Corning executives reaching out to GE’s major competitor. They built a ribbon machine for General Telephone and Electric (GTE).
The Rambling Ribbon Machine
The first descendant of the original machine to travel abroad was simply called S-1, though she got that name later, and went by different monikers according to where she landed. Built in Wellsboro, this granddaughter of Rosie was originally known simply as #10. As a part of the Marshall Plan to reinvigorate the European economy following World War II, she was sold to Glass Bulbs Ltd., an English company, in 1948. The S-1 ribbon machine labored faithfully in Harworth, England until 1978 when she was taken out of service and replaced by two newer machines sold by General Electric. This was, of course, a direct result of the earlier lawsuit—when the FTC decided in favor of GE, the resulting knowledge-share enabled GE to produce their own ribbon machines. Offered a faster, more modern ribbon machine by GE, Glass Bulbs, Ltd., removed S-1 from service and she sat unused, abandoned for a year.
At that point, she was sold to General Telephone and Electronics (GTE) Sylvania Corporation—GTE by then had merged with Sylvania.
Meanwhile, Corning executives had seen a dramatic drop in their glass bulb sales as a result of General Electric’s suit. Still nursing their wounds, they were heard to grumble, “Too many companies are making glass bulbs.” They soon sold the Wellsboro Corning Glass plant to GTE-Sylvania, a rival of GE. At that point, S-1 was dismantled and prepared for transit yet again. Once more, S-1 sailed across the sea as she was moved to the GTE-Sylvania corporate headquarters in Danvers, Massachusetts. Once there, GTE-Sylvania employees never touched her. She sat idle and dejected. Her working days looked to be done.
Sylvania’s merger with GTE opened an opportunity for the Sylvania branch of the corporation. Sylvania was a major manufacturer of light bulbs and wanted to be able to say that all components of their light bulbs were made in America. So, in 1981, GTE-Sylvania decided to move S-1 back to their Wellsboro facility. She was going home! After she returned to Wellsboro, the ribbon machine mechanics had a lot of work to get her back into condition. Still encased in Cosmoline, a petroleum-based wax, as well as layers of dirt, the Wellsboro machine crew headed by Bill Kilmer cleaned her in the yard before she could be taken into the plant. Then, piece by piece, mechanics including Charlie Starkweather, John Cooney, Ells Rose, Bob Stevenson, John Stevenson, Jack Cooney, Carl Buss, Harland Hilborn, and Jim Melko slowly rebuilt and upgraded S-1. Some ball bearings built to British metric sizes had to be replaced with the American standard measurements. She was refurbished and “tuned up” to run faster than she had in England from 1948 speed to 1982 speed. S-1 returned to service in Wellsboro in 1982 and spit out glass bulbs until the plant closed in 2019.
She would have yet another new owner when GTE sold the plant to Osram-Sylvania with the Sylvania branch maintaining the glass bulb element of the operation. That company had built a plant in Versailles, Kentucky, and in 2019, S-1, #9, and #12 were shipped for use in Versailles. When the Versailles plant closed a few months later in September 2019, Osram gutted both the Wellsboro and Versailles plants. S-1 and her sister #9 were scheduled for the scrap heap. The Wellsboro Glass Historical Association learned of the plight of the ribbon machines in Kentucky. Determined to save the last ribbon machines, with help from Growth Resources of Wellsboro (GROW) and Corning, Inc., the parent company, the Association was able to purchase S-1 and machine #9 and arrange for their transport back to Wellsboro. By the time representatives of the Glass Historical Association arrived in Versailles, #12 machine had been dismantled and sold for scrap. Luckily, they were able to save the remaining two ribbon machines.
In June 2020, S-1 and #9 returned to their hometown. S-1 had grown some as Versailles mechanics added to her length, so she could process florescent tubing. Today, she sits just outside the borough in another abandoned factory, looking quite forlorn. She was due a rest after life of travel, and is looking for a new, permanent home in Wellsboro.
Full disclosure: The author’s blood relatives and their spouses were credited with over 975 years of service in the Wellsboro plant. Several times, three generations punched in at the CGW Wellsboro Glass factory. Parent and child were regular hires. The author earned tuition for college working summers at the glass plant following his grandfather and father. He admits to nearly flunking out of college when he opted to work the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift for an entire semester.
Thanks go to the many employees who chatted glass works history with me through the years. Special thanks go to William “Bill” Kilmer, Grant “Skip” Cavanaugh, John “Jack” Cooney, and others for their recovery of records, and their phenomenal memories. Glass historian Cavanaugh is part of the newly-formed Wellsboro Glass Historical Association. Their mission is to build community pride in Wellsboro’s important role in glass manufacturing through acquisition, preservation and presentation of this important history. A 501c3 non-profit organization, the association runs a small Pop-Up Museum on Main Street in Wellsboro. Learn more on their Facebook page, Wellsboro Glass Historical Association.