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Inventing American Laboratory Glass

In 1914, cut off from Europe with the advent of World War I, Americans experienced a serious shortage of laboratory glassware. In a short time, however, American glassmakers created borosilicate glass brands that were unheard of before the war.

Among them was Corning Glass Works' Pyrex. Developed for kitchen use in 1915, a year later it found another market in the laboratory. It quickly became a favorite brand in the scientific community for its strength against chemicals, thermal shock, and mechanical stress. Following the end of the war, the U.S. government enacted tariffs to protect the burgeoning American laboratory glass industry from competition. The ever-growing field of American scientists provided a large market for domestic glassmakers. European glassware never again dominated the American market.

Pyrex is ubiquitous in the Museum's collection—evidence that the scientific community embraced the brand. It can be found among donations from chemists, biologists, and medical professionals dating from the 1920s to the present day.

 

Dorothy Fennel, microbiologist, at U.S. Department of Agriculture Northern Regional Research Laboratory, Peoria, Illinois, works with Penicillium mold samples for antibiotic research, early 1940s

 

Petri dish

In the late 1880s German physician Julius Petri developed a set of nesting glass plates that created an ideal environment for growing microorganisms. The deep, flat dish filled with a nutrient-rich gelatin provided a place for growth. The lid protected the sample from contamination and facilitated its viewing under a microscope. Scientists in Peoria, Illinois, used the larger of the two dishes seen here for penicillin research during World War II.

Lifetime Red Volumetric Flasks

By the late 1930s Corning introduced "Lifetime Red" Pyrex that featured graduations and scales etched on a permanent red background. Marketing promoted it with the slogan, "When it’s red—it’s easily read."

Pyrex laboratory glassware catalog, September 1926

 

Other Objects

Petri dish

Petri dish