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Sir Alastair Pilkington

Sir Alastair Pilkington - he was honoured with a knighthood in 1970 - invented the "float" method of glass-making which revolutionized the industry in the 1960's. He had the idea in the early 1950's, allegedly while washing up: the sight of a plate floating on water, it is said, made him think that the same principle could be applied to the manufacture of glass. But it took seven years of hard work to prove that he was right, and the cost of developing the process brought his employers close to financial ruin.

Although it was announced to the public in 1959, it was not until 1962-3 that it became uninterruptedly profitable. Since then it has made a vast amount of money for Pilkington Brothers: income from licensing and technical fees is running at a rate of 30 millions pounds a year. (circa 1986)

Alastair Pilkington was educated at Sherborne School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He became an officer in the Royal Artillery just before the outbreak of World War 2, and later fought in the Mediterranean, where he was taken prisoner after the fall of Crete. When the war ended, he returned to Cambridge and gained a degree in mechanical science. He joined Pilkington Brothers (there was no family connection) as a technical officer in 1947.

When he started work on his process, the target was to make, more economically, the high-quality glass essential for shop windows, cars, mirrors and other applications where distortion free glass was necessary. At that time this quality of glass essential for shop windows, cars, mirrors and other applications where distortion-free glass was necessary. At that time this quality of glass could only be made by the costly and wasteful plate process, of which Pilkington Brothers had also been the innovator. Because there was glass-to-roller contact, surfaces were marked. They had to be ground and polished to produce the parallel surfaces which bring optical perfection in the finished product. Sheet glass - glass made by drawing it vertically in a ribbon from a furnace - was cheaper than polished plate glass because it was not ground or polished, but it was unacceptable for high-quality applications because the production method imparted some distortion. It was suitable for domestic and horticultural glazing, but could not replace polished plate. Many people in the glass industry had dreamed of combining the best features of both processes. They wanted to make glass with the brilliant surfaces of sheet glass and the flat and parallel surfaces of polished plate. Float glass proved to be the answer.

In the process, a continuous ribbon of glass moves out of the melting furnace and floats along the surface of a bath of molten tin. The ribbon is held at a high enough temperature over a long enough time for the irregularities to melt and for the surfaces to become flat and parallel: because the surface of the molten tin is flat, the glass also becomes flat. The ribbon is then cooled down while still on the molten tin, until the surfaces are hard enough for it to be taken out of the bath without rollers marking the bottom surface: so a glass of uniform thickness and with bright, fire-polished surfaces is produced without the need for grinding and polishing.

Alastair Pilkington encountered numerous setbacks during his seven years of hard labour. People, he recalls, kept asking him: 'When will you succeed?' All he could say was: 'We will know the answer to that only when we have succeeded.' The cost was far higher than anyone had bargained for, and it took considerable courage for the board of directors to go on supporting him. When he finally made it, they decided to license the process, chiefly to get some income but also in order to ensure that others would not find it worthwhile to research their own technology. The first foreign licence went to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in 1962, and this was quickly followed by manufacturers in Europe, Japan, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and others in the USA. Today (circa 1986) the float glass process is licensed to thirty-five companies in twenty-nine countries and the Pilkington Group itself operates fourteen plants - six in North America, three in Britain, three in Germany, one in Sweden and one in South Africa.

Under the licensing arrangement the group gets a disclosure fee, a once-and-for-all payment for each float glass plant put down, and a royalty on sales. An improvements clause which gives all manufacturers an incentive to undertake development work is built into the licence. Any improvements made by Pilkington go automatically and freely to all licensees, but any patented improvements made by any of them can be sold to other licensees - with the exception of Pilkington, who receive it free.

Pilkington glass is used in everything from shop windows to skyscrapers. The company is the world leader in supplying windshields to jet aircraft, from Boeing's fleet to the most advanced jet fighter planes. Elsewhere in aviation its glass is used as a heatproof shield for generations of guided missiles, which puts it in the forefront of Star Wars research. It also provides submarine periscopes and the glass for NATO's Challenger tank. It makes 20 per cent of all the spectacle lenses in the world. One in five of all the cars made in the world use Pilkington glass, and the company is now developing a range of glass auto components, from engine parts to body panels, which are so tough and shatter-proof that within the next decade they could replace much of the steel used in the industry.

Sir Alastair Pilkington's endeavours, all those years ago, could have led to disaster. But his persistence paid off. It is one of the most remarkable success stories in British industry.


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