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Michael Owens
(1 Jan 1859 - 27 Dec 1923)

American inventor and manufacturer who invented the automatic glass bottle-making machine with which he revolutionized the industry.


Michael Joseph Owens

Michael Owens was a glass manufacturer who invented an automatic glass bottle manufacturing machine that revolutionized the industry. His mechanization of the glass-blowing process eliminated child labor from glass-bottle factories, which he had himself experienced from the age of ten. To help provide income for his coal-mining family, Owens joined a glasworks at that age, where he stoked coal into the “glory hole” of the furnace used to resoften glass during the several stages of the hand-formed process. Within a few years, at age 15, he had graduated to the job of glass-blower.

In 1888, he moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he worked at the glass factory of Edward Drummond Libbey, and shortly became its superintendent. It produced high-quality consumer items, including cut glassware, which he demonstrated at the company's exhibit during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

He had already started experimenting with a piston-pump to first suck molten glass into a mold to gather a correct measure of the material and then to transfer it to a second mold into which it was blown by reversing the pump. Although the initial results were crudely formed, he was ready to take out patents in 1895 (No. 534,840; 548,587; 548,588). Owens designed machines to manufacture lamp-chimneys and tumblers.

Together with Libbey and others, Owens formed the Owens Bottle Machine Company in 1903. With continued development and improvements, by the time he obtained patent No. 774,690 on 8 Nov 1904, he had a machine capable to producing four bottles per second.

He was ready to expand the business, and in 1905 opened a factory in Manchester, England.

Owens’ machines could be built with from six to twenty arms, each blowing a bottle. The machine would cut loose the finished piece and deliver it to a conveyor taking it to the annealing oven. Since a fifteen-arm machine could do as much work as originally done by a dozen or more skilled glassworkers, depending on the size and shape of the product, there was a dramatic saving in labour costs. One version of his bottle-blowing machine, the “AR,” contained 10,000 parts and weighed 50 tons.

Meanwhile, Libbey and Owens had helped fund Irving W. Colburn, who since 1900 had been working on a machine capable of continuously drawing flat sheet glass. In 1912, they bought the patents to this machine, which Owens perfected, and the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company was opened in 1916 to make window glass.

While Owens continued as the inventor, Libbey worked with investors and licensed the inventions to other bottle manufacturers.

From 1919, he retired from day-to-day management of his company to focus his time on inventing. He eventually held 45 U.S. patents, either independently or jointly with others.

In 1983, the American Society of Engineers designated one of Owens’ “AR” bottle-blowing machines as an International Historic Engineering Landmark. A modern-day version contains 30,000 parts and can produce a million bottles a day.

References: Dictionary of American Biography, American National Biography.

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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