We would ask, 'what can we do to be different from everybody else?' and that's what led us to concentrate on the whole idea of innovation as a process and the whole idea of fundamental research and development in glass as critical to the future success of the company.
Interview by Heidi Legg
In 1851, Amory Houghton started in the glass business by investing in Bay State Glass (eventually Union Glass Works) in nearby Somerville, MA. He was not a glassmaker himself initially but became fascinated by the process and apparently was constantly experimenting with different compositions and processes. After a few years in Somerville he moved the company to Brooklyn, NY, where it became the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works. A few years later, the factory was destroyed in a fire and the company almost went bankrupt. As the story goes, the town fathers of Corning, NY heard about the glass company and visited Amory Houghton and convinced him to move the whole company by barge through the Erie Canal system to the banks of the Chemung River in Corning, NY in 1868. The three things you absolutely need to make glass are sand, water and limestone and Corning had all three in abundance.
In America today there is a lot of talk about getting people back to work and keeping America innovating. We wanted to sit down with someone who led one of our most innovative companies during the last century and we were fortunate to have time with Mr. James R. Houghton, retired Chairman of the Board of Corning Incorporated. We asked James Houghton what elements came together to make innovation back in his day at Corning such an integral part of its growth.
Houghton joined Corning in 1962. The company was founded in 1851 by his great-great-grandfather Amory Houghton. Elected Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Corning in 1983, James R. Houghton retired his post of Chairman in 2007.
What were you trying to change at Corning?
I wasn't trying to change much. I was happy with the history of the company and the way it had developed and it's insistence on innovation. I was just trying to keep that going.
How has Corning Glass worked to keep its spirit of innovation?
I think it goes back to the very beginning when my family first started Corning and they realized they couldn't just do what other people were doing. They couldn’t just make glass bottles or plates or windows like everyone else. They had to do something different and Corning Glass was one of the first companies in the US to invest in the idea of research and development. We really were one of the leaders in bringing research and manufacturing together.
Who adopted your research methods?
General Electric was starting to do it, as well as a few other companies, but Corning was a real leader. In fact, Thomas Edison, who founded GE, came to Corning in the late 1800s to develop the envelope for his new electric light and David Sarnoff at RCA came to Corning in the 1930s, to develop the glass envelope for the television. We were one of the first companies to hire 'a scientist'. We hired a man named Eugene Sullivan who was our first director of research and he did amazing things. At that time the railroad industry was having a terrible time with burnouts in the signal lights along the tracks. The heat of the light on the inside against the cold of the weather on the outside would break the glass. So, Dr. Sullivan further developed a German-invented glass composition called borosilicate glass that could withstand tremendous changes in temperature without shattering. It allowed railroads to have glass lanterns that would not break in winter storms. In 1915, Sullivan and W.C. Taylor had transformed borosilicate glass into an exotic new product called Pyrex®.
The story goes that another scientist’s wife, Bessie Littleton, took one of these railroad lamp bulbs into her kitchen and decided she'd figure out what to do with it and baked a cake in it. That is how Pyrex came along as a domestic product.
Why did people continue to care about pushing innovation during your tenure as CEO?
People cared because it made money for us. The whole idea was to do something that was important. We would ask, 'what can we do to be different from everybody else?' and that's what led us to concentrate on the whole idea of innovation as a process and the whole idea of fundamental research and development in glass as critical to the future success of the company.
What was the size of the Research and Development department during your tenure?
It was huge. I’d say thousands and most of it was in Corning at Sullivan Park, our main research facility, and that is the great thing about Corning. We believed that not only should we concentrate in research but we also had a feeling that you ought to have research, management and factories all in the same town. We’ve always had that sort of feeling that we're all together - that there wasn't a separate place for research or a separate place for management. It was all in the same town and that was very important because it gave people an incentive to come and want to do things there.
Do you have any advice about innovation today and moving our country forward in terms of innovating?
I think it's just having faith in the future and being able to say to yourself, 'We don't know what's going to happen but if you spend money on research, something good will happen and therefore it's worth doing. Take fiber optics. The original concept - that you could communicate with light by taking a certain amount of energy and put it into the threads of glass fiber - had been around for a long time but a small group of Corning scientists started working on the problem in the 1960s by trying to develop incredibly pure glass. By the early 1970s they had figured out a solution but it took another 17 years of investment on our part in the development of the compositions and the manufacturing process before fiber optics were introduced into the telephone networks and the product started to make money. I give all the credit to my brother Amo, who was CEO at the time, for sticking with it.
Were you able to keep most scientists loyal to Corning?
I would say we have lost very, very few people we wanted to keep over the years. And it was not just the pay. We created an environment where we told people, “You're on the frontier of doing something new. Keep going. Keep going.” And you know what, we kept them.
Who inspired you?
My father and my family. I grew up with this. I grew up with the idea that research was important. Innovation was important. So, it was imbedded in me when I was growing up.
You’ve had close ties with Harvard as a graduate, fellow and a member of the Corporation. How much of your time did you spend at Harvard when you were a member of the Corporation?
When I was active, it was probably a quarter of my time.
What did your role entail?
Giving advice to Harvard. They either take it or they don't. It's that simple. I spent a number of years on the Corporation and it was fun because it was a small group of people that worked with the President to see what could be done to change the university and to keep building it.
Were there people at Harvard who inspired you during your time on the Harvard Corporation?
One person that I looked up to a lot was a fellow named Hooks Burr who for years was a senior fellow at Harvard. He was a lawyer and the boss and senior partner at Ropes & Gray and he had a great feeling for Harvard and he spent a lot of time at it. I knew him very well. Another one was Henry Rosovsky who was the Dean at Harvard College. He was also on the Corning board for quite a while and he was a wonderful man. He's still around but he's off the corporation now too.
Do you think Harvard helps with innovation in America the way Corning had during your tenure and if so, how?
Harvard is a huge place and so it's got innovation in all sorts of different areas and each one is separate. They work at it all the time to make sure they're keeping on the leading edge of this stuff. It is ever-present. They are thinking about innovation all of the time.
What meaning doe Cambridge hold for you?
It's a wonderful place. My wife grew up there and my mother in law lived there and I loved the idea of being associated with Harvard. I love The People's Republic of Cambridge!
Favorite place to dine in Cambridge?
I used to love Elsie's. Elsie's is out of business now but it was on the corner of Mount Auburn and Plympton, right in Cambridge and I used to get these wonderful Roast Beef sandwiches there – takeout.
Were there other iconic spots where you and Mrs. Houghton spent time during your college years at Harvard and Radcliffe, respectively?
The movies were at the UT – the University Theater – and the most expensive seats were wicker and it cost fifty cents. The Brattle Theater was sort of the up-to-date place where you went to see different movies – the Casablanca-type.
You’ve been very active as a family in the arts, do you have a favorite place in Cambridge for the arts?
The Fogg. I love the Fogg Museum and think highly of the director Tom Lentz and the architect of the new space, Renzo Piano.
Do you think in terms of legacy?
I love my association with Harvard and that's been wonderful. And Corning's my life and that's where we live and it's still very much home for me.
My hope is that Corning keeps on with what they're doing in innovation, and the things they're doing to make it a broader company – a worldwide company – but I hope they always keep their headquarters there in that small town. That's very important.
The City of Corning was named first. The City of Corning was named after a financier by the name of Erastus Corning. When the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works moved here in the late 1860s from Brooklyn, NY, it was renamed the Corning Glass Works. The company now is named Corning Incorporated.