After getting a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1936, a master’s degree in chemistry in 1938, and a Ph.D in chemistry in 1940, Stookey received two job offers: “One was from the Nabisco baking company and one was from a glass company he’d never heard of in upstate New York,” said Stookey’s son, Bob. “He knew he didn’t want to bake bread, so he went to Corning.” There, he did research on glass. In 1953, after putting a piece of research material in an oven, the oven malfunctioned. He had intended to heat the piece to 600 degrees Celsius, but “When I came back, the temperature gauge was stuck on 900 degrees, and I thought I had ruined the furnace,” he said later. “When I opened the door to the furnace, I saw the glass was intact and had turned a milky white. I grabbed some tongs to get it out as fast as I could, but the glass slipped out of the tongs and fell to the floor. The thing bounced and didn’t break. It sounded like steel hitting the floor.” He had accidentally invented glass ceramics. After several years of development, Corning announced its new material, Pyroceram. A news article on the new “pyro glass ceramic” material noted it was “expected to be used in combustion-type electric turbines, guided missiles, jet engines of airplanes that fly at supersonic speeds, oil refining, chemical processing and home cookware.” Wait, what? Sure, a rocket nose cone that was transparent to radar sounds like a typical R&D success story in the 50s, but cookware? Sure enough, that’s how most people know of Corning’s nearly unbreakable high-heat glass cookware, dubbed CorningWare. Unlike regular glass dishes, it could go from the stovetop to the oven (or microwave) to the fridge without breaking from the temperature changes. More than 750 million pieces were sold. It is also the basis of Corning’s more modern material, Gorilla Glass — which likely graces the face of your smartphone.
But Stookey was far from done. He developed photosensitive glass that made the color TV tube possible. He is also the lead inventor on photochromatic eyeglass material — spectacle lenses that automatically darken when hit by sunlight, and clear up again inside. In all, Stookey was awarded more than 60 patents. “He was one of the great glass scientists in the history of the world,” said physics professor Steve Feller at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Stookey received his undergraduate degree (Magna cum laude). “There were all sorts of spinoff applications from his fantastic work.” Stookey was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. He retired from Corning in 1987 after 47 years on the job. “I thought this might be a field where I could find something new, invent things not seen before, and I was lucky to have that be the case,” he said about his career. Dr. Stookey died November 4 after falling and breaking his hip; he never fully recovered. He was 99.