Syrup Off the Roller: The Libbey-Owens-Ford Company 


Irving Colburn, pioneer in sheet glassLike the production of glass bottles, little had changed in the methods used to produce flat or sheet glass in the United States prior to the end of the nineteenth century.  Two methods were typically employed:  a cylinder was blown, cut, reheated and flattened; or molten glass was poured into a large flat mold, and then grinded and polished.  The Colburn process would revolutionize the production of flat glass much as the Owens automatic bottle machine revolutionized the production of glass bottles.

 A frequent visitor to Michael Owens's office, Irving W. Colburn had worked unsuccessfully for many years to develop a process to automate the production of sheet glass.  A mechanical engineer and inventor living in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Colburn first met Owens in the mid-1890s while visiting his brothers in Toledo who were working on a tumbler machine at the Owens Bottle Machine Company.  Intrigued by the glass industry, Colburn began visiting window glass factories.  Amazed by the use of the cylinder method, which he typified as backward ("why create a cylinder for what would become a piece of flat glass") he began searching for financial backing and a building to work on an automatic method for producing flat glass.

His experimental factory, located outside Philadelphia, was the scene of many failed attempts before he finally developed what became known as the Colburn process. Colburn's inspiration came to him while eating pancakes.  He noticed that after cutting the pancakes, the syrup clung along the length of the knife blade as he lifted it.  It occurred to him that a sheet of molten glass could be pulled up in a similar manner.  In his machine, the glass was pulled from the tank by the bait (iron bars), then bent over a steel roller and propelled through the annealing lehr on rollers turned by electric motors.    Production problems, however, continued to plague Colburn.  Large sections of the sheet glass unexpectedly shattered or flaws in the glass suddenly appeared.  In 1910, in a final attempt to save the Colburn Machine Glass Company, Colburn invited potential investors, including Owens, to a demonstration.  But when he was unable to obtain financial backing, Colburn closed his company and on February 8, 1912, his patents were sold at a sheriff's auction.  The purchase price of $15,000 was paid by the Toledo Glass Company.  Owens was most interested in the Colburn process.

Working together in a plant constructed by Toledo Glass, Owens and Colburn collaborated to perfect the process.  By spring 1916, they refined theIrving Colburn and workers of the Toledo Glass Company process and formed the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company.  This company purchased all of the patent rights for making sheet glass from Toledo Glass and began production in a new factory near Charleston, West Virginia, in October 1917.  Colburn, unfortunately, did not live to see his process finally put into successful practice, dying on September 4, 1917.

The 1920s saw tremendous expansion at the West Virginia plant, the building of a factory in Louisiana through the incorporation of the United States Sheet and Window Glass Company, and the licensing of the Colburn machine in several countries.  Even with these successes, Owens continued to push Libbey to fund the experimentation of grinding and polishing the sheet glass produced by the Colburn machines to remove all warps and waves, as well as producing safety glass, now in demand by the burgeoning automotive industry, through the lamination of two sheets of glass.  Despite the deaths of Owens in 1923 and Libbey in 1925, a grinding and polishing factory was built in east Toledo, beginning operations in 1925.  A small research building was added the next year for experimenting with safety glass. 

In 1928, Henry Ford introduced his Model A which included as standard equipment a windshield of safety glass made from laminated window glass.  Although Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass was still experimenting with laminated glass, their glass was considered superior to any other available at the time.  The company rushed to complete a laminating factory adjacent to the east Toledo grinding and polishing plant. But production could not keep up with demand, and the company officers began looking across the Maumee River at the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company.

Edward Ford arrived in Toledo in 1897 to look at sites for a new plate glass company.  He built a factory on the east bank of the Maumee River and the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company was incorporated on November 11, 1899. By 1910, Ford wrote with pride that the factory included a casting department containing seven large 20 pot furnaces.  Next to the furnaces was the lehr building, followed by the grinding room with 25 grinding machines.  Adjoining this was the polishing department containing 18 polishing machines. Ford purchased more acreage and constructed a second plant which began operation in 1913. He ensured that the company remained owned and managed by the family by naming his son, George Ross Ford, as his successor upon his death in 1920.

The 1920s saw continued improvements at the Ford plant. The company enlarged every aspect of producing plate glass resulting in a much higher rate of production.  What most impacted the production rate was the purchase of a Bicheroux machine that had been primarily used in Germany.  This new pot-casting machine, with its big water-cooled iron rollers, controlled the thickness of the glass before it reached the casting tables allowing for much less grinding time.  The Bicheroux machine began operating on July 14, 1928.

The Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company factoryThe two organizations, the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company and Edward Ford Plate Glass Company, nicely complemented one another.  The two finally merged in 1930 through the efforts of Ray Graham, who with his brothers Joseph and Robert, had formed one of the nation's outstanding firms in industrial investments and management.  Glass manufacturing was not new to the Grahams.  The Owens Bottle Company purchased the Graham Glass Company of Indiana in 1916.  The Grahams then organized the Graham Truck Corporation and the Graham-Paige Motor Corporation and won recognition for their management of the Dodge Motor Company.  By the late 1920s, Ray Graham was a major holder of Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass stock and served as chairman of the board.  Formal discussions between the officers of the two companies took place in Florida in February 1930.  The merger was quickly approved and the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company was born.

The following year, the company produced glass for the new Empire State Building in New York City. They opened a Thermopane factory in 1946, manufacturing insulated window glass, which in 1951 was used to seal the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for preservation and display at the National Archives.  The new L-O-F headquarters in downtown Toledo was completed in 1960.  In 1985, L-O-F's glassmaking operations were acquired by Pilkington Ltd., and L-O-F's other divisions became TRINOVA Corporation. 


At the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections


Photographs, cylinder method of window glass manufacture, 1905-1910.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            Prior to the development of the Colburn process, most sheet glass was produced by blowing glass cylinders, cutting them, and then reheating to flatten.  These photographs depict the various steps in producing window glass.  


Colburn experimental machines scrapbooks, 1876-1908.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            In 1902, Colburn built a factory in Franklin, Pennsylvania, for the purpose of developing and perfecting a method of pulling glass out of the pot in a continuous sheet.  An amateur photographer, Colburn maintained scrapbooks of his photographs and detailed notes about the machine and the process.  He describes both his successes and failures.  In one photograph depicted, he notes, "turned portion of glass a white opake (sic) due to the stirring of glass and also in a measure to exposing glass to alternate heat and cold." 


Colburn sheet glass production linePhotographs, Toledo Glass Company Sheet Glass Plant, 1912-1914.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            After the Toledo Glass Company purchased Colburn's patents, an experimental factory was built at the intersection of Castle Boulevard and the New York Central Railroad tracks. Completed and operational in 1914, the factory was the site of the successful operation of the Colburn machine and process.  The photographs, taken by Colburn with notations, depict the building of the factory, the operating Colburn machine, the annealing lehr, and final packing of the sheet glass.  Colburn (in white) is photographed with several of the glass workers.   Grinding and polishing sheet glass


Colburn Machine Patent, December 4, 1917.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            Illustrated is the first page of the drawings and description of the Colburn machine and process filed with the United States Patent Office on January 8, 1916, and patented on December 4, 1917. 


Cooling the sheet glassThe Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company Record Book, Volume 1, 1916-1919.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            Similar to the establishment of the Owens Bottle Machine Company, the directors of Toledo Glass set up a separate company to manufacture sheet glass using the Colburn process and to license the use of the Colburn machines.  The Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company was incorporated on May 18, 1916. 


 Irving Wightman Colburn Memorial Book, 1917. L-O-F, MSS-066.

            Colburn died on September 4, 1917, before he could see the final success of his process and machine. The memorial biography with portrait provides details on his efforts to invent a method for continuous sheet glass drawing. He is described as an honorable man, a republican, and a charter member of the Inverness Golf Club. 


Four generations of Fords photograph, 1899.  L-O-F, MSS-066

            Captain John Bapiste Ford; son, Edward; grandson, John B.; and, great-grandson, John B. III., are pictured in this photograph (right to left).  Captain Ford had started, among other business endeavors, a glass factory in New Albany, Indiana.  He imported glass workers from Europe to develop the flat mold process for producing plate glass.  Eventually he would move his business to Pittsburgh and form the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.  His son, Edward, established his own plate glass company near Toledo in 1899. Edward's son, John B. Ford, was instrumental in negotiating the merger between Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass and Edward Ford Plate Glass in 1930. 


Record book of the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company, 1899-1909.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            Edward Ford purchased 173 acres on the east bank of the Maumee River, built a plate glass factory, and established the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company in 1899.  The town of Rossford, the name a combination of Edward Ford and his wife's maiden name of Ross, developed around the factory.    


Excerpt from Edward Ford diary while on European trip, 1893.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            On April 21, 1893, Edward and John Pitcairn toured the Pilkington glass factory in St. Helens, England.  Edward noted the reluctance of William Pilkington to show the factory to the visitors and provided details as to the Pilkington process of producing plate glass.  He ended with the comment that, "The Pilkington Brothers are the most enterprising Plate Glass men, and the most progressive we have met in Europe and I think they are in the lead."  Pilkington, Ltd. would purchase Libbey-Owens-Ford glassmaking operations in 1985.    


Photographs of the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company, 1920s.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            These photographs illustrate the plate glass process in use at the Rossford plant.  Depicted is the mix house where the batch was prepared and conveyed to the furnaces; the melting of the batch, removal of the pots and casting the glass into the molds; the removal of the unfinished sheet glass from the lehr; the grinding, polishing and cutting tables; and, the packing department. 


Photograph, Libbey-Owens-Ford headquarters, 1960s.  L-O-F, MSS-066.

            The new headquarters of LOF was completed in 1960 and located at 811 Madison.

Last Updated: 6/27/22