A Trip to the Corning Museum of Glass

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A Trip to the Corning Museum of Glass

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Over the past five years or so, glass has evolved from being just a display for our technology to the interface itself. If you dismiss all prior and unsuccessful attempts where a stylus was used, the iPhone began this trend. Now the terms smartphone and tablet are virtually synonymous with a touch-based interface which relies on glass. Corning, the company behind Gorilla Glass proudly counts just about every company in tech as its customer and says it has its glass installed on over a billion devices including products from Samsung, HP, Dell, Lenovo and Sony.

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In order to find out more about Corning, I made the trek this past weekend with the family to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY to learn more about the company’s history. It was a fascinating trip – worth the 4.5 hours’ drive in each direction. You can walk around a seamlessly endless variety of works-of-art based on glass and related materials. In addition you can see 15 minute shows on topics like hot glass where a glass design is made in front of your eyes. In addition there is a flameworking demo where you can see more glass made – but in this case the flame is handheld – not from an oven. The glass breaking demo was fascinating as well – you learn about why glass breaks and how it can be made more safely.

In 15 minutes you can see how glass works of art are made

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Finally the optical fiber demo did an amazing job of explaining in plain English the technology which is responsible for letting you see these words.

One of the interesting quotes from the museum wall

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Of all I saw, most fascinating was Colladon’s Experiment (below) where you witness that light stays trapped in a stream of water due to internal reflection. The light escapes and becomes visible only when you break the surface tension of the water by doing something like letting a drop of water hit the stream. Once this happens, you can instantaneously see the hidden light. This is the same principle behind the fiber optics market and this discovery is one of the many which made the high-speed internet possible.

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Vince Desparrois works full-time at the museum and I can't imagine anyone explaining fiber optic technology in plain English better than him

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Throughout the facility are videos and signs giving you a sneak peak into how glass became an essential part of WWII and also is used in telescopes, periscopes, microscopes and fiberglass insulation. You also get insight into how glass had to be developed for each of these applications and what became possible as a result. Most interesting of all were two common themes. Many of the inventions made by Corning scientists happened as a result of experiments but turned out to be accidental. I’m not taking anything away from these scientists mind you – just reiterating what they explained themselves.

Of course there are also lots of example such as the CRT-based TV where innovation came through sheer persistence. For example, allowing the development of rectangular glass which many said was impossible to make.

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Moreover, many of the innovations the company created like optical fiber were invented before the market was really ready to embrace them.

The museum is great for techies and non-techies, adults and children. For an additional fee you can make your own glass work of art.

Sadly Gorilla Glass was what I hoped to see as part of the day but it was conspicuously absent. Thankfully I brought a smartphone and tablet with me to the museum so it really wasn’t missed.



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