As the holiday season begins, many of us will be spending extra time in our kitchens preparing special meals and seasonal treats. From apple pie to green bean casserole, so many of our favorite dishes are often baked using a well-known invention: Pyrex® brand cookware.
Co-invented by National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductee Eugene Sullivan, Pyrex baking dishes are immensely popular. There’s a good chance you have at least one in your cupboard — but have you ever wondered how this glass cookware was invented? Read on to learn the story!
Tracing the Path to Pyrex
Born in 1872, Sullivan earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan. He then completed graduate work at Germany’s Universities of Gottingen and Leipzig, where he earned his doctorate.
Sullivan worked for the U.S. Geological Survey before coming to Corning Inc., where he founded the Corning Glass Works' research lab in 1908. His work launched Corning's long tradition of glass research, fostering new developments, driving innovation and paving the way for the industry-shaping cookware we know today.
From Railway Lanterns to Pie Plates
Before Pyrex, there was Nonex. Improving on a shock-resistant borosilicate glass that had been developed by German company Schott AG, in 1908, Sullivan created Nonex — a heat-resistant glass introduced by Corning for use in industrial products such as railway lanterns.
Looking to expand on the success of Nonex, Corning worked to find additional markets for this specialty glass and hired physicist Jesse T. Littleton to contribute to these efforts. When Littleton’s wife Bessie had a ceramic dish break while she was baking, the couple wondered if Nonex might be suitable for baking. Jesse brought home two Nonex battery jars and Bessie put one to use as a sponge cake dish. She found her experiment successful. Not only did her cake bake faster than when she’d used ceramic or metal dishes, but it baked evenly and was easy to remove.
Following continued experimentation and innovation, Sullivan and fellow Corning scientist William C. Taylor patented a cooking-safe glass formula. Corning began selling it in 1913, beginning with a pie plate, under the name Pyrex.
Improving Life in the Kitchen
In order to turn Pyrex into the popular cookware it is today, Corning needed to convince the public that the glass dishes would not shatter in their ovens. According to the Corning Museum of Glass, the company accomplished this through advertisements that promoted how “breakthroughs in the laboratory improved life in the kitchen.”
Corning’s promotional efforts relied heavily on the work of home economists — influential women whose endorsements were “highlighted in ads, cookbooks, magazines and newspapers and helped convince dubious consumers to try the new, transparent ovenware.” Consumers soon began to embrace the products’ economy and more efficient cooking times, and by 1920, Pyrex was found in kitchens across the country.
More than a century later, Pyrex brand cookware remains a leading choice among cooks and bakers everywhere — and we have extraordinary innovators to thank for it!
The legacy of Sullivan, who continued to influence research in Corning’s labs until his death in 1962, is honored today with the Corning research and development facility that bears his name: Sullivan Park.
Meet More Influential Inventors
Since 1973, the National Inventors Hall of Fame has honored more than 600 of the world’s greatest creators, innovators and entrepreneurs. To discover more stories behind the inventions that have shaped our lives, visit our website.