Businessman Michael Joseph Owens (January 1, 1859-December 27, 1923) was America’s foremost genius in the development of mechanical glass production. He was born in Point Pleasant, the son of poor Irish immigrants. He went to work with his father in a Mason County coal mine before he was ten years old. When a slate fall injured young Owens, the family moved to Wheeling where he began a life-long career in glass production by tending a furnace at the Hobbes-Brockunier glass works.
By the age of 15, Mike Owens had become a skilled glassblower and was working with craftsmen two and three times his age. He rose rapidly in trade union ranks and became an officer in the American Flint Glass Workers national organization. His reputation as a diligent worker and a leader of men attracted the attention of Edward D. Libbey who hired Owens to manage his ailing factory in Toledo, Ohio.
Owens did more than rescue the Libbey operation. He also began experiments that placed the Libbey interests in the forefront of technological developments which would revolutionize the ancient hand methods of glass production. By 1895, Owens had perfected machinery for blowing tumblers, light bulbs, and lamp chimneys. A few years later, he had successfully automated the production of bottles. From 1912 to 1916, Owens turned his attention to perfecting the mechanical process for making window glass, which had been pioneered by Irving Colburn.
By 1917, Owens’s life had come full circle. He returned to West Virginia in 1909 to establish a state-of-the-art bottle factory at Fairmont, and in 1916 he launched at Charleston a factory which would become the world’s largest producer of window glass. Seven years later, Michael Owens died suddenly while working on a way to manufacture safer glass for automobiles.
This Article was written by Fred A. Barkey
Last Revised on October 12, 2010
Davis, Pearce. Development of the American Glass Industry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.
Scoville, Warren C. Revolution in Glassmaking. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.
Barkey, Fred. Mike Owens' Glass Company. Goldenseal, (Spring 1996).