Making Glass Products Affordable

Bottles, which have become throwaways today, were once so expensive that they were not used for vital necessities such as containers for milk, pharmaceuticals, canning, and for other food products. Bottles were hand blown and slow to produce. That changed based upon the invention of a bottle making machine of Michael J. Owens.

Michael Owens was born in West Virginia. At the age of 9, he started working in a coal mine with his father. But an eye injury changed his life and the lives of all Americans. He was sent to Wheeling, WV to work as an apprentice in a glass factory. He became a master glass blower in five years. But he realized that he would never advance because of the discrimination against Irish Catholics.

Michael decided to move to Toledo, Ohio to work in a factory owned by Edward Libbey. He was quickly made the manager. Michael quickly turned the factory around. He was then asked to run a factory making light bulbs. This was when Michael began to change basic glass making processes. His inventions increased production by 900% and reduced the cost by 90%. This was the first basic change in glass making in 2,000 years.

Libbey and Owens made a great team. Libbey was a master at marketing and finance, while Owens was the inventor. With a limited education, Michael lacked the abilities of most people of his era. What he could do was visualize inventions. Although he lacked the ability to convey his ideas on paper, he was very articulate at describing them to a draftsman.

Michael started to focus his attention on bottle making. The result was a bottle making machine with 10,000 parts, all visualized in Michael’s mind. The machine resulted in a 500% increase in the number of bottles that could be produced per hour. The lowered cost of bottles improved the lives of everyone while doubling the market for glass bottles. It’s hard for us to imagine today the impact that expensive bottles would have on our society.

Michael set up his own company with Edward Libbey to make bottles. It would eventually control most of the bottle market in America and Europe. This was the first U.S. company to be multinational.

We know the name Owens from companies such as Owens-Illinois, Libbey-Owens-Ford, and Owens-Corning. What tends to remain hidden is the identity of Michael Owens, a man with virtually no education who went to work at the age of 9. Hidden heroes often have a visionary sense that makes up for a lack of education. Michael Owens had the vision to make glass cheaply so that American citizens could benefit from sanitary bottles, glass windows, and windshields and windows in their cars.

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“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” – Jonathan Swift (Essayist)

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