The small city of Corning, New York (pop. 11,000), is situated 21 miles from the southern tip of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region. Despite its modest size, it contains the world headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Corning Inc., a leading manufacturer of glass and ceramics. The firm moved to Corning in 1868, and it has been the bedrock of the city’s economy for more than 150 years. Currently, Corning is busy making glass vials for COVID-19 vaccines, as well as producing the glass used by Apple for its iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. But it has numerous other claims to fame. Back in the 1930s, the company made the mirror for Caltech’s 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory; later it provided the glass for the primary mirror in the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the windows for NASA’s space shuttles. However, Corning’s most earth-shattering invention came in 1970, when four of its researchers produced the first functional fiber-optic cable, thereby ushering into existence the entire world of modern digital communication.
All of these accomplishments are illuminated in the remarkable Corning Museum of Glass, which the company founded in 1951. Before my visit, I had no idea that the museum would be so extensive. The shiny modern complex was comprehensively renovated in 2001 and has recently been the subject of a $64 million expansion project; the new Contemporary Art + Design Wing opened in 2015. Overall, the museum contains more than 50,000 glass objects, some up to 3,500 years old, and is now widely regarded as the most comprehensive glass collection in the world.