Company History - 1826 - 1950

It was renamed Greenall & Pilkington in 1829 and, after the withdrawal of Peter Greenall, the firm was retitled Pilkington Brothers in 1849.

At this time, the window glass industry was almost exclusively concerned with producing crown glass. This type of manufacture was gradually superseded in the late 1830s and early 1840s by the introduction of sheet glass made by the blown cylinder process.

The introduction of the cylinder process for sheet glass was a development of great significance. The repeal of the glass excise duty in 1845, by removing the financial advantages bestowed upon crown glass manufacturers, placed Chances of Birmingham, Hartleys of Sunderland, Cooksons of Newcastle and Pilkington, all of whom had started to produce sheet glass by the cylinder process, in a stronger competitive position than those firms which continued to make only crown glass.

By 1860 Pilkington and Chances had nine furnaces each, three more than Hartleys, and between them these three glassmaking firms were producing 75% of all the window glass made in this country. At the same time foreign imports, chiefly of Belgian origin, were themselves felt. In the mid-nineteenth century three innovations helped to streamline the sheet glass industry. They were the Siemens regenerative furnace (1863) which was more economical on fuel; the Beivez l3hr cooling oven which reduced annealing time from eight hours to thirty minutes (1870); and the Siemens tank furnace (1873) which replaced the traditional pot furnace, making glass melting a continuous process.

At the same time as Pilkington introduced tank furnaces for the manufacture of sheet glass, both Chances and Pilkington decided to manufacture plate glass.

Until the late eighteenth century cast plate glass had been made only in France. In 1773 the British Cast Plate Glass Company was set up by Act of Parliament with a capital of 40,000. By 1786 the company's huge works at Ravenhead, near St. Helens, was built and the first domestic plate glass cast. Plate glass was an expensive process to establish and maintain and there were never many establishments in Britain.

Pilkington chose as its site Cowley Hill on the outskirts of St. Helens and by 1876, five years after the decision to manufacture plate glass had been taken, Pilkington was producing as much as the Ravenhead factory, then in the hands of the London & Manchester Plate Glass Company, and ten years later its production was three times as great.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, strong competition continued to be experienced from the continental manufactures as their production capacity expanded. This competition was made much more severe by the growing self-sufficiency of the United States market, which had been one of the most important export outlets. The growth of industrialisation in the United States, as well as causing the collapse of British exports, meant that British manufacturers had to contend with much heavier Belgian and French competition at home.

One British company after another succumbed and by 1903, within 30 years of Pilkington's entry into this branch of the flat glass industry, it had become sole British producer. Pilkington bought the Ravenhead works in 1901.

There were two main reasons for Pilkington's survival. After 1894, the year in which Pilkington became a limited company, it was the only plate glass manufacturer which also manufactured sheet, rolled, plate and cathedral glass, all of which continued to yield profits which balanced the difficulties in the plate market. However, Pilkington had also been able to achieve comparatively low manufacturing costs in plate glass, resulting from numerous innovations and improvements in manufacture since the introduction of the process.

Depots or agencies were established in many overseas markets. Of these, Canada became the most important, with a network of depots across the country from 1892. Agencies were established in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Holland, Egypt and South America.

At the Sheet Works, the mechanical-drawn cylinder process superseded the hand process. This idea originated in the United States in the 1890s but took ten years to develop into a commercial proposition.

Although there was no question of the mechanical process driving the hand blown process off the market immediately, because the quality of the former was poor, a considerable increase in output made it attractive. The cylinder drawn process, however, was to become less and less competitive with the American Colburn and Belgian Fourcault patented processes for producing sheet glass by drawing a continuous ribbon of flat glass. Although Pilkington had considered the Fourcault process as early as 1903 and had obtained an option on it for this country, it had been rejected in favour of the cylinder drawn method.

Development work on the Fourcault process, however, gradually eliminated many of the technical objections which had led Pilkington to its decision, so that it slowly overtook cylinder-drawn in terms of cost as well as output. At the end of the 1920s when Pilkington was considering abandoning sheet glass, the successful development of a third continuous flat drawn process completely changed the position. This was the PPG process which Pilkington adopted in 1931.

A subsidiary manufacturing company, which had been set up at Thorold in Canada just before the First World War to operate the Canadian patent rights of the cylinder drawn process, had to be closed down again in 1924 due to uneconomic operation in the face of competition from flat drawn sheet.

In the manufacture of plate glass Pilkington achieved outstanding success in the interwar years. At the end of the First World War, the plate process was basically the same as that introduced at Ravenhead in 1883. However, early in the 1920s Pilkington co-operated with the Ford Motor Company of America in developing the continuous flow process, and at the same time itself developing a method of continuous grinding and polishing.

By 1935 the company had developed the 'twin' machine which ground both sides of the ribbon of glass simultaneously. These developments gave Pilkington an international advantage in plate manufacture which they shared, however, by licensing the continuous and the 'twin' grinders to overseas manufacturers.

The demand for plate glass was greatly increased by the rise of the mass production motor industry. The need for the specialist production of safety glass led to the formation in 1923 of the Triplex Safety Glass Company to operate in Britain certain French patents for laminated glass.

In 1929 Pilkington and Triplex formed a joint company to build a works at Eccleston, St. Helens, which initially produced laminated glass. In the 1930s they entered into a series of agreements for the manufacture and sale in Britain of the newly developed toughened glass. Pilkington gradually increased its shareholding in Triplex until by 1965 it was the majority shareholder.

By 1945 Pilkington had acquired a 50 per cent shareholding in Chance Brothers, and by 1951 Chance became a wholly owned subsidiary. The two companies had for some time co-operated in the field of rolled glass, which was now Chance's sole flat glass product.

Chance had been making glass fibres at Firhill, Glasgow, since the late 1920s and Pilkington acquired an interest in 1938. In 1944 Glass Fibre Limited was reorganised as Fibreglass Limited, and a new works was erected at Ravenhead, St. Helens, for the production of insulation materials. Early development in the manufacture of glass fibre reinforcements was carried out at Firhill and at Birkenhead.

Chance had been involved in the manufacture of optical glass in Birmingham since 1848. Prior to the Second World War a 'shadow' optical factory was erected by Pilkington at St. Helens in case of war damage to the Birmingham plant. In 1957, the optical side of both companies was combined in the new Chance-Pilkington Optical Works at St. Asaph, North Wales.

From the 1930s Pilkington had established overseas operations to manufacture sheet glass and safety glass. By the 1950s the company was manufacturing in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.

1950s The invention of float glass and overseas growth

The 1950s were, however, of most significance to Pilkington because of the invention of the float glass process. In 1952 Alastair Pilkington conceived the idea of forming a ribbon of glass by floating the melted raw materials at high temperature over a bath of molten tin. It took seven years and more than 7 million ( 80 million in today's money ) to develop the process. Pilkington set out to replace the twin grinding and polishing process for making plate glass. In the event, the float glass process superseded not only that process, but also the sheet glass process for making ordinary windows. It was to become the universal process for the manufacture of high quality flat glass.