Running the ribbon machine: Stories from the team

“It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.” That was how mechanical engineer Bill Kilmer described his work with the ribbon machine, a piece of equipment that could produce approximately 1,700 lightbulbs per minute.

Glass ribbon machine

Glass Ribbon Machine, Keller Technology Corporation; United States, New York, Buffalo, 1998. Metal; Overall H: about 250 cm, W: about 250 cm, D: about 2,300 cm. 2016.8.411. Gift of Ledvance, LLC.

The story of the ribbon machine is one of cutting edge technology, and of such successful mass production that Corning Glass Works became the premier supplier of incandescent light bulbs in the world. It is also a story about teamwork, camaraderie, loyalty, and unique human/machine interaction. “I lived with the machine,” said Kilmer. “The machine’s 24/7; anytime of the day or night it could be calling you.”

Bill Kilmer talking about the ribbon machine

Mechanical engineer Bill Kilmer said working with the
ribbon machine is “not a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

Kilmer worked at the Osram Sylvania glass manufacturing plant in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, which closed last year. In July, a team from The Corning Museum of Glass visited the plant. We were there to observe the machine’s final start-up and capture the voices and memories of several veteran team members reflecting on the machine’s groundbreaking technology, the intricacies of operation, and the dedication of its operators.

William Woods designed the original ribbon machine for Corning Glass Works in 1926 to automate the production of glass light bulbs, and to produce them faster and more efficiently. There were other machines producing bulbs at the time, but peak production averaged, at best, approximately 48 bulbs per hour. Corning Glass Works installed the first ribbon machine at their plant in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. A new machine, built in 1998, could produce anywhere from 300 to 2,000 pieces per minute, depending on the product; it ran 24 hours per day.

“It’s intense, fast, demanding, requires competency, and pride.”
– former plant manager Matt Gontarz

While the machine often ran for days at a time without incident, it could be fickle, with some problems maddeningly challenging to repair. Running the ribbon machine takes a team of operators, each with a different job and skills, as numerous variables can affect the production process. Process engineer David Erdman explained that one small change in the machinery – such as a knob that needs adjusting, or a part falling off – causes the glass to become inconsistent, essentially scrap. “You’re making a lot of junk in a very short period of time. The clock is continually ticking.”

Matt Gontarz talks about the ribbon machine

Former plant manager Matt Gontarz emphasized the
collaboration and cooperation needed to run the
machine. “It requires setting aside egos and
focusing on the problems.”

When something goes wrong, ingenuity and – above all – precision teamwork, is required. “Cooperation is the key, a lot of individual skills, and collaborative problem-solving,” said Matt Gontarz. “It requires setting aside egos and focusing on the problems.”

Standing on the factory floor in the heat near the flaming ribbon machine, ear plugs in place, we watched the team perform their finely choreographed tasks to run the ribbon machine one last time. It was easy to understand the devotion of these men to the machine they had come to know intimately over the course of their careers.

Since the plant closed, Museum staff have worked with Osram Sylvania employees to transfer the ribbon machine – one of the last remaining in North America – along with a selection of molds and glass blanks, to storage at the Museum. Likewise, the stories of Kilmer, Erdman, Gontarz, and others have been added to the collection of the Rakow Research Library. Though nothing can quite replicate the effect of the machine and team, working in tandem on the factory floor, we hope our efforts will help preserve this remarkable piece of technology and its place in mechanical, economic and social history.

Watch the ribbon machine in action:

2 comments » Write a comment

  1. I found a sugar dispenser in my boyfriends moms cupboard today. it is a 1959 – 7-930-with a flower decoration on front . The flowers are two daisies in which one is teal green and the other is an avocado color. I was surprised it looks brand new like it was never used. What an awesome item to have come across.

  2. I too was a ribbon Machine engineer, first with General Electric then asked by Sylvania to move two of the Wellsboro PA machines to Versailles KY. The Versailles plant built a new building and support structure for the two machines and had them up and running quicker than expected. It was a monumental effort and I am proud to have been a part of it.
    It is unfortunate the Versailles plant is now closing, leaving the last two Ribbon Machines in Canada and the America’s idle. They will most likely be scrapped.

    These machines are one of a kind, solely responsible for making the incandescent light bulb possible. The engineering in these machines, the complexity and elegance is rarely seen an modern manufacturing equipment. Operating the machine was at times an art form, despite the never-ending pressure of corporate to quantify every variable and automate the system. This was never successful. These machines required constant maintenance, love and care to keep production continuous for days at a time, stopping only for type equipment changes and scheduled maintenance hours…

    It took an army of folks, and many other systems to keep them running. These machines required a glass tank to keep the glass flowing and annealing and packing machines to ship the product, cooling air and water systems, scrap glass (cullet) handling systems, huge glass quenchers and 100 ft long annealing ovens.

    Phillips, Sylvania and General Electric all manufactured their own machines, claiming each were the fastest in the world. We could all turn up the knob on these machines to claim bragging rights but I always bragged about how my machine would but 99% of the bulbs in the box at the end of the day rather than a pile of cullet.

    I am proud to be one of the very few people in this world that kept these machines running. It is all gone now, and the machines will collect dust in a museum, never to run again…


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