Pilkington, Sir Lionel Alexander Bethune (Alastair)

SUBJECT AREA: Chemical technology
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b. 7 January 1920 Calcutta, India
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English inventor of the float-glass process.
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Pilkington was educated at Sherborne School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in mechanical science. He spent one year at Cambridge followed by war service, which lasted until 1945. He returned to complete his degree and then joined Pilkington, the well-known glass manufacturer at St Helens' Lancashire, in 1947. Sir Alastair is not, however, related to the Pilkington family of glassmakers.
The forming of perfectly flat glass that retained its fire finish had eluded glassmakers for centuries. Until the 1950s the only way of making really flat glass was to form plate glass by continuous casting between steel rollers. This destroyed the fire finish, which had to be restored by expensive grinding and polishing. The process entailed the loss of 20 per cent of good glass. The idea of floating glass on molten metal occurred to Sir Alastair in October 1952, and thereafter he remained in charge of development until commercial success had been achieved. The idea of floating molten glass on molten tin had been patented in the United States as early as 1902, but had never been pursued. The Pilkington process in essence was to float a ribbon of molten glass on a bath of molten tin in an inert atmosphere of nitrogen, to prevent oxidation of the tin. It was patented in Britain in 1957 and in the USA two years later. The first production glass issued from the plant in May 1957, although the first good glass did not appear until July 1958. The process was publicly announced the following year and was quickly taken up by the industry. It is now the universal method for manufacturing high quality flat glass.
Having seen through the greatest single advance in glassmaking and one of the most important technological developments this century, Sir Alastair became Chairman of Pilkingtons until 1980 and President thereafter.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Knighted 1970. FRS 1969. Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1991.
Bibliography
1969, "Float glass process—the review lecture", Royal Society (13 February). 1975, "Floating windows", Proceedings of the Royal Institution, Vol. 48.
1976, "Float glass—evolution and revolution over 60 years", Glass Technology, Vol. 17, no. 5.
1963, "The development of float glass", Glass Industry, (February).
Further Reading
J.Jewkes et al., 1969, The Sources of Invention, 2nd ed., London: Macmillan.
LRD

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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