Ladies & Gentlemen, The Greatest of All Inventors Is….

It’d be difficult to name the greatest of all inventors. But someone did. And it’s difficult to argue with their choice.

Sure, so many possibilities come to mind. Thomas Edison (light bulb, phonograph), Grace Hopper (computer), Shirley Jackson (telecommunications), Steve Jobs? Or maybe it was the person who invented the wheel (circa 3500 BC, and first used not for transportation but as a potter’s wheel)?

Nope, nope, nope, nope and no.

Mark Twain named the “greatest of all inventors.” And his choice was present with everyone on the aforementioned list.

So, who then is the greatest inventor of all time? Here’s a short story containing a clue.

Donald Stookey was born in small town called Hay Springs, Nebraska. And as a young man, graduated from MIT with a PhD in physical chemistry. Upon graduation, he had a couple decent (though very different) job offers. One of his offers was from the Nabisco Baking Company and the other was from Corning Glass.

He thought about what he wanted to be doing in his future, and couldn’t quite imagine a career making bread, so he took the job with Corning. Stookey went to work in the Corning R&D department, and since he had really no experience with glass at that point, began experimenting and learning about the material.

It was during one such experiment that Stookey thought he’d ruined one of the ovens in the Corning laboratory.

Stookey had placed a piece of glass in the oven intending to heat it to 600F. But, when he came back to laboratory to check on the glass, he realized the oven controls were broken and saw temperature gauge was holding steady at 900F. In a rush, he quickly grabbed a pair of tongs and pulled the glass from the oven. Being in a hurry, he had a poor grip on the glass, and watched it slip from the tongs and crash onto the hard concrete floor.

But it didn’t shatter. Instead, Stookey said, “The thing bounced and didn’t break. It sounded like steel hitting the floor.”

Stookey didn’t know it at the time, but he’d accidentally invented glass ceramics. Turns out the material had never-before-seen properties. So he spent several more years working on the material, before Corning announced it to the world as Pyroceram. It was ultra hard, heat resistant and strong – and perfect for a lot of things. Including being used as the nose cone for supersonic missiles, and unlike a metal nose cone, it allowed the radar signals to readily pass through.

Oh, and it also became the cookware product Corning named CorningWare – which was used in millions of homes in America. It could go from the hot oven into the freezer without cracking. And it wouldn’t break if by chance it landed on the floor. It’s estimated that nearly 750 million pieces of CorningWare products have been sold.

What’s more, decades later the material further evolved into Gorilla Glass, which we’re all familiar with as the black screen covering iPhones, iPads and other devices sold around the world.

Donald Stookey had a long and innovative career at Corning.

He also invented photochromic glass, which allows for the darkening of sunglasses when exposed to bright lights.

And, Stookey invented photosensitive glass, though this invention was kept confidential for many years. Turns out the military used his invention during World War II to hide messages inside transparent glass, which could only be read when heated by the recipient.

In the end, Donald Stookey went on to work for 47 years at Corning and earned over 60 patents.

So, was Donald Stookey the “greatest inventor of all time?”

Nope. At least not according to Mark Twain (though Twain of course lived long before Stookey and some of the other inventors mentioned).

On that topic, Mark Twain said, “Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.”

And sure enough, if you study innovation and invention, you’ll find “accident” is commonly present.


Tom loves building meaningful businesses and technology (with people who care). Follow him on LinkedIn. Reach him at or on Twitter @thomastriumph

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