Almost everyone can identify the classic white dish with the blue cornflower on the side. CorningWare was a staple of almost every house on my street when I was growing up. Something so popular had to have been the result of careful planning and engineering right?
In fact, the favorite dish of America is actually the result of a colossal mistake, but when life gives you lemons…
It all started in 1915 when Coring Glass Works introduced Pyrex to the world. It was the first time that glass ovenware could be used. The traditional metal was the only option before because glass couldn’t stand up to the heat.
Fast forward a few years to 1952 and Dr. S Donald Stookey, who worked for Corning, was working in a division trying to find an even stronger version of glass. Little did he know that an accident in the lab was about to change his job forever.
Dr. Stookey was a very smart man, graduating with Honors from Coe College and then later finishing with a Doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even the smartest men in history have been the beneficiaries of some good luck.
That’s what happened to Stookey. While testing a piece of glass using in early TV production, a malfunction in the oven accidentally baked the material at a whopping 900 degrees Celsius, more than twice what normal ovens can produce at their hottest temperature.
He expected the piece of glass to be a melted puddle when he opened the oven, but he was surprised to find it still intact. It kept its shape and turned to a milky white color. He carefully removed the piece of glass from the oven with his tongs, but fate wasn’t done with him yet.
While moving the glass Stookey tripped, dropping the superheated (and thus fragile) glass onto the floor. Any reasonable person would have expected it to shatter, but instead it stayed whole. Not long after these two accidents, Coring began selling their new material, called Pyroceram, to the military to be used in rockets.
A few years later Corning re-purposed their durable material to a line of dinnerware that holds so many memories for many of us. CorningWare was a hit, selling out across the world as the first dish that could be used in the oven, at the table and to store leftovers.
Stookey died at the age of 99 in 2014, having claim to 60 patents. With all his success it’s amazing that his biggest invention was one that he created by accident.