Americans are learning how their iconic products and precious jobs may never be “American” ever.

In 1970, scientists at the research centre in Corning, the famed glassmaking firm in upstate New York, developed a breakthrough in communications technology by discovering “low-loss optical fibres” capable of maintaining the strength of laser light over vast distances.

The breakthrough was to revolutionise communications technology, expand bandwidth as never before. As you are told in the visual show on the subject at the Corning Museum of Glass, the full potential of optical fibre-created bandwidth has yet to be fully realised.

This is only one of the innovations from Corning Incorporated, a household name in glassware familiar to Indian middle class families. The innovation is arguably the most significant for its profound impact on the volume and speed of information that can be transmitted over vast distances, giving meaning to the notion of the world as a global village.

Arguably because Corning’s innovativeness stretches back more than a hundred years; eight years shy of a century before the discovery of optical fibre, in 1879, Corning developed the bulb-shaped glass cover for Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp. It continued on its cutting edge innovation: the television tube and recently the glass frames for Apple’s signature iPad and iPhones.

The Sculpted glass

At the Corning Glass Museum, the visitor enters a world almost unreal and breathtaking in the vastness of creativity that glass can generate. On display are sculptures from modernist and post-modernist works based on glass; on exhibit among others are the works of the German founder of studio glass sculpture, Erwin Eisch.

Corning Museum’s Glass Lab invites designers to work with hot glass.

Kitsch and tacky art draws the usual tourist, but to stand in front of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass panels depicting art-nouveau landscapes is to experience a sublime moment amidst the rush of holiday tourists gawking at porcelain wares or earrings.

Corning and America

The most emblematic visual, however, is a canvas painting next to an enlarged panel of a grained sepia photograph.

The caption says it all: From Farm Town to Crystal City. The juxtaposition of the pastoral in the canvas, the earliest known painting of Corning village from the early eighteenth century, and brooding industrial smokestacks a hundred years later, is a parable of America, its movement from an agrarian to industrial society with manufacturing the defining indicator of its economic power.

But the parable is half-complete; to realise its fullness you have to look around to what Corning stands for in the public imagination most: a museum of glass.

End of manufacturing?

Corning’s original factories have expanded vastly all over the United States as its specialities grew.

But the largest expansion has been overseas, to Asia in the recent past.

In its growth, Corning both mirrors and leads the trajectories of American manufacturing shopping out to Asia where cheap labour and nimbler “supply chains” create enormous advantages for manufacturers such as Apple.

Supply-chain economics

Early this year, the New York Times ran an article ‘How the US Lost out on iPhone Work’ (January 24 2012) about iconic American firms such as Apple relocating production to China.

The article describes working conditions in China that made it clear why jobs were being exported: low wages, and working conditions no Americans would be willing to tolerate.

The Dickensian world in which thousands of workers at Foxcomm, the firm mentioned in the article create the iPhone’s glass screens, tells us why Steve Jobs when asked by President Obama whether he would bring back jobs to America, flatly refused.

The glass for Apple’s phones, needless to say is made by Corning as glass sheets, not in Kentucky or Corning, New York or any of the other factories in the US but in China, next to the Foxcomm workshops.

James Flaws, CFO of Corning, told NYT reporters Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher that the firm could make the glass in America and ship the sheets to China but it would be far too expensive; since the consumer electronics business was now Asian, Corning had decided to set up shop in Japan, Taiwan and particularly China, not just for Apple iPhones but for all consumer electronics firms keen on Corning glass.

Heart of the matter

Corning, like Apple, is as American as apple pie; or so it has been believed. But their shipment of work to China raises key questions for Americans. For companies it makes sense to move to China or Taiwan: but not for out-of-work Americans.

But behind Jobs’ reported cold-hearted refusal to bring back jobs lies a colder rationality that Americans will have to live with. The NYT article makes clear that this country lacks not just the numbers of middle level managers required to manage the massive workforce employed in China’s Foxcomm; no American would be willing to work the way the Chinese workers work — sleeping in dorms and 12-hour shifts.

Another issue is, of course, skill levels. The average American education level is falling, in part because education is an expensive business and fewer home-grown Caucasian or African-American kids are getting the kind of skills that can get them the jobs Asians get.

So what is the US left with? Its spirit and environment for innovation; innovation at Corning constitutes its brain and imagination so it could be said that Americans still add immense value.

But innovation creates few jobs: one scientist can help create ten sheets of new glass screens or ten million.

So the advantages of America’s innovation at the end of the day go to overseas workers (however low paid they might be), but most to the corporations.

For them, it pays to be out there.

(This article was published on August 7, 2012)
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