“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.
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.”
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.”
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: