On February 26, 1895, an American glassworks employee named Michael J. “Mike” Owens, shown right, was granted a patent on his machine for blowing glass and 2,000 years of making bottles went crashing into shards. Early next year we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of that defining moment in glass manufacturing.
Glassblowing as a technique is believed to have been invented by Syrian craftsmen in the first century B.C. somewhere along the Syro-Palestinian coast.
The rise of the Roman Empire served to spread the technology to other areas and blown glass became common for household and other uses.
Over two centuries, techniques for glassblowing were tweaked but did not change significantly. The worker attached molten glass on the end of a blowpipe and with his breath pumped air into the blob until it reached a desired shape. After the glass had cooled it was broken away from the pipe, rough edges smooth and, voila!, a bottle.
Growing up in West Virginia, Mike Owens knew a lot about blowing glass. Born on January 1, 1859 in West Virginia, he was the son of an Irish immigrant coal miner. Sent early to work for the family by the age of fifteen he had become a glassblower in a Wheeling, W.V., factory. Through intelligence and hard work he advanced to a master glass worker, leaving his native state to help organize a glass company at Martins Ferry, Ohio.
Owens’ reputation reached north to Toledo, Ohio, where rich and well-born Edward Drummond Libby, left, had taken control of a glass factory and in 1888 offered him a better paying job. His talent evident, within three months Owens was managing the glassworks department. Several years later he approached the owner to say that he had idea for an automatic bottle machine and asked for money, time, and assistance to bring it to reality.
Many industrialists might have scoffed and told Owens to get back to work. Libby, for whom my aunt, Nell Sullivan, was a secretary, was an enlightened entrepreneur. (Around my Toledo home we always referred to him reverentially as MR. Libby.) He gave full backing to Owens and on February 26, 1905, the inventor was awarded Patent No. 534,840 for a glassblowing machine, the drawing shown here. In the paperwork accompanying his application, Owens stated: “My invention relate to an apparatus for blowing glass and has for its object to perform mechanically, what has heretofore been done manually.”
With that announcement, two centuries of making bottles by human breath came to an end, except for artisanal purposes. By automating the manufacture of glass containers Owens helped eliminate child labor in glassworks — a practice of which he was well aware. Two diseases were eliminated that plagued the workers, an inflammation of the aerodigestive tract and clouding of eye lenses, both resulting from exposure to hot gases.
On the economic front, the cost of glass bottles was reduced by 80%, leading many canners, brewers and distillers, to move rapidly to machine-made containers. At the same time, however, it left many glassblowers and their helpers unemployed since the mechanized process needed many fewer employees.
Within three years of the invention, the early Owens machine produced an estimated 105 million bottles. As he gained experience with the process, the Irishman continued to improve on his invention, ultimately producing the “Owens
Automatic Bottle Machine.” It is shown here, one of the rare views of the inventor with his brainchild. This machine increased production numbers by 1915 to over one and one half BILLION bottles manufactured annually.
Owens was fortunate that Edward Drummond Libby was a man of integrity and high character. A lesser man might have tried to marginalize the unlettered inventor and “stolen” his invention. Libby, on the other hand, continued to encourage Owens to continue inventing, financed his efforts and advanced his name to the forefront of American industrialists. Note Owens Bottle Machine Co. (now Owens-Illinois), Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Co. (Libby-Owens-Ford), and Owens-Corning Fiberglass.
In 1915 the Franklin Institute of Pennsylvania awarded its coveted Elliott Cresson Metal to Owens. Established by philanthropist Cresson in 1848, the medal was awarded annually “for discovery or original research adding to the sum of human knowledge, irrespective of commercial value.” Because of its “novelty and utility” the automatic bottle machine earned Owens the honor. Seen here front and reverse is the Cresson Medal.
As additional evidence of the importance of Owens's machine to the industry, within 20 years nearly all bottles manufactured in the United States were produced automatically. Standardization of bottle sizes and quality led to high-speed filling capabilities by those who used the bottles. As a result, the bottle machine had a huge impact on food, soft drink, pharmaceutical product, and alcoholic beverage producers. Shown below are glass paperweights issued by the Owens Bottle Machine Co., depicting early glass container mechanisms.
In the summer of 1956, I worked as an intern at Owens-Illinois in Toledo, writing items for plant newspapers. As a result I was allowed on the factory floor to see the contemporary version of the Owens machine in action. It was an unforgettable experience. The heat and glare of the molten glass, the long mechanical arms reaching into the inferno and scooping up an orange glob, straightening out while blowing air into the glass, dislodging it as it cooled, and ducking back for more — totally spectacular.
Mike Owens died in Toledo on December 23, 1923, at the age of 64, having revolutionized an industry. His passing came unexpectedly. He was attending a meeting of Owens Bottle Company directors when he got up, walked a few steps, sat down in a chair, complained of feeling ill and died within 20 minutes. He was buried in Toledo’s Catholic Calvary Cemetery, his gravesite shown here.
In a memorial booklet to Owens, Libby had this tribute: "Self-educated as he was, a student in the process of inventions with an unusual logical ability, endowed with a keen sense of far-sightedness and vision, Mr. Owens is to be classed as one of the greatest inventors this country has ever known.” Libby commissioned a pressed glass bust, shown below, that was given to a limited number of Owen’s relatives, colleagues and friends.