Today in Technology History

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September 4

Today is the anniversary of the death of a man who made possible the inexpensive glass windows we enjoy in our homes and office buildings.

Irving Wightman Colburn was born in 1861 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. As a lad, Colburn learned about machines in his father's shop at home; after high school, he took a job in the machine works his father managed.

Colburn's interests, however, soon shifted from the mechanical to the electrical, and he almost single-handedly brought his hometown into the electrical era. He started selling electrical equipment when he was just twenty-two. In time, he began to manufacture and sell equipment of his own design, including motors and dynamos. He also installed Fitchburg's first telephone system and electric lighting.

In the late 1890s, Colburn moved to Toledo, Ohio and got involved in the rapidly growing glass industry there. Owing to its quality sand and its affordable natural gas and labor, Toledo was the site of various glass interests involved in making bottles, light bulbs and flat glass.

It was the latter that most intrigued Colburn. The process for making flat glass like that used in windows was complicated and costly, so Colburn spent the rest of his life improving that process. He invented and patented a machine that used rollers to produce continuous sheets of glass that could be cut to the desired size -- for the first time making it possible to cheaply produce glass windows, which had previously been somewhat of a luxury.

Colburn didn't have much success exploiting the invention himself, so he sold his patents to a glass company that hired him. He didn't live to see how his invention would change architecture and the everyday experience of ordinary people: Colburn died on September 4, 1917, not long after his company opened a large sheet glass plant that used his process.

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