What it is: Gorilla Glass is the toughened glass used in most smartphones and tablets today.
Most revolutionary breakthroughs often look like disasters or dead ends. The microwave oven was discovered by mistake when a scientist noticed chocolate bars would melt in his pocket when he got too close to a microwave transmitter. Post-It notes were invited by a researcher at 3M who was trying to come up with a new type of glue and failed, but discovered a type of glue that would retain its stickiness over time. Rarely does a new invention get adopted right away and become an astounding success and that’s exactly the same route that Gorilla Glass took.
Corning Glass sinks 10% of their budget on research and development. That means they come up with lots of products that lead to dead ends and one of them was Gorilla Glass. Back in 1952, Corning Glass chemist Don Stookey placed a sample of photosensitive glass inside a furnace and set the temperature to 600 degrees Celsius. At some point during the run, a faulty controller let the temperature climb to 900 degrees C. Expecting a melted blob of glass and a ruined furnace, Stookey opened the door to discover that, weirdly, his lithium silicate had transformed into a milky white plate. When he tried to remove it, the sample slipped from the tongs and crashed to the floor. Instead of shattering, it bounced.
That accidental discovery of tough glass led to Corningware made from the world’s first synthetic glass ceramic. Corning quickly developed ways to improve the strength of their glass in an R&D initiative known as Project Muscle. The goal was to make the glass even stronger, yet nobody wanted it. Corning eventually shelved the project in 1971.
As mobile phones became popular in 2005, Corning revived Project Muscle to see if it would be possible to make their tough glass thinner and lighter for use in mobile devices. When Steve Jobs was ready to introduce the iPhone, he asked Corning Glass if they could manufacture thin sheets of toughened glass to serve as the display on the iPhone. Corning Glass dusted off their old Project Muscle samples, reworked it, and Gorilla Glass was born.
Today, nearly every smartphone and tablet uses Gorilla Glass all because corning Glass had the foresight to experiment and save their research dead ends for possible use later in the future. Until the iPhone came along, Gorilla Glass seemed to have little purpose. Now Gorilla Glass is a vital component of every mobile device.
Corning Glass may hit dead ends, but they know that the future can never be predicted so it’s best to keep researching and experimenting with new and old ideas until you find a way to make them work. Other companies take a much more short-sighted approach and simply copy what the market leader does and call that research and development. Copying the leader rarely leads to long-term success since the moment market conditions change, the market leader and all copycats suffer the same fate.
Corning Glass represents long-term thinking and acceptance for short-term failure. Without Gorilla Glass, the iPhone may not have been possible. Without the iPhone, Android smartphones and tablets would never have appeared. One little breakthrough can spawn a whole cascade of other breakthroughs.
The next time you’re using a smartphone or tablet, you can thank Corning Glass for being one of the few companies that actually researches new ideas rather than trying to find ways to copy rival products. Just ask any smartphone or tablet user where they might be without Gorilla Glass that had its origins back in a research project decades ago.