05/30/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Corning's James R. Houghton on Innovation in America

One morning, running across the JFK bridge on the Charles River in Cambridge, I read the passage I'd passed hundreds of times. Etched in the stone were the words: "The wisdom of the wise is the welfare of the world."

It took me a mile more before the impact of those words struck me. I wondered if the quote was erudite or if it sounded entitled? I contemplated if we'd lost something with our blogosphere and reality television and I found myself longing for a time where tribal leaders and elders passed on wisdom but with the democracy of free speech and mobility for all. I also thought about the struggle many Americans are facing today to stay afloat. Out of struggle comes innovation and as I ran past the hallowed halls of Harvard, I thought about the college grads and neighbors who are looking for work. America's young, especially, are struggling.

And that is what led me to a conversation with James R. Houghton, former CEO and chairman of Corning Incorporated, where we discussed innovation in America during golden times and why Corning Incorporated was able to stay ahead. And it seemed apt, at a time when students all across the country -- and down the block at Harvard and MIT -- are graduating with newly minted degrees this week to think about innovation and how it has worked in the past.

Houghton devoted his professional career to Corning Incorporated, one of the world's leading makers of specialty glass and ceramics. He started at Corning in 1962, after graduating from Harvard Business School. He rose to become the company's chairman of the board and chief executive officer from 1983 to 1996 and later served again as both chairman (2002-08) and CEO (2002-05). Houghton also served on the Harvard Corporation (senior fellow of the President and Fellows of Harvard College) for more than 15 years of service.

I first asked him about the history of the famed American company. In 1851, Amory Houghton started in the glass business by investing in Bay State Glass (eventually Union Glass Works) in Somerville, Mass. He was not a glassmaker himself initially but became fascinated by the process and apparently was constantly experimenting with different compositions and processes. After a few years in Somerville he moved the company to Brooklyn, N.Y., where it became the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works. A few years later, the factory was destroyed in a fire and the company almost went bankrupt. As the story goes, the town fathers of Corning, N.Y., heard about the glass company and visited Amory Houghton and convinced him to move the whole company by barge through the Erie Canal system to the banks of the Chemung River in Corning, N.Y., in 1868. The three things you absolutely need to make glass are sand, water and limestone and Corning had all three in abundance.

And then I asked him about the spirit of innovation. "I think it goes back to the very beginning when my family first started Corning and they realized they couldn't just do what other people were doing. They had to do something different," Houghton explained. "Corning Glass was one of the first companies in the US to invest in the idea of research and development. We really were one of the leaders in bringing research and manufacturing together."

Others quickly adopted Corning's research methods. Thomas Edison, who founded GE, came to Corning in the late 1800s to develop the envelope for his new electric light and David Sarnoff at RCA came to Corning in the 1930s, to develop the glass envelope for the television.

"We were one of the first companies to hire 'a scientist.' We hired a man named Eugene Sullivan who was our first director of research and he did amazing things," Houghton said. He went on to explain that at that time the railroad industry was having a terrible time with burnouts in the signal lights along the tracks. The heat of the light on the inside against the cold of the weather on the outside would break the glass. Dr. Sullivan further developed a German-invented glass composition called borosilicate glass that could withstand tremendous changes in temperature without shattering. It allowed railroads to have glass lanterns that would not break in winter storms. In 1915, Sullivan and W.C. Taylor had transformed borosilicate glass into an exotic new product called Pyrex.

"The story goes that another scientist's wife, Bessie Littleton, took one of these railroad lamp bulbs into her kitchen and decided she'd figure out what to do with it and baked a cake in it. That is how Pyrex came along as a domestic product," Houghton chuckled.

He pressed on the importance of having research, management and factories all in the same town. "We've always had that sort of feeling that we're all together -- that there wasn't a separate place for research or a separate place for management. It was all in the same town and that was very important because it gave people an incentive to come and want to do things here."

In terms of innovating today, Houghton offered Americans this advice: "It's having faith in the future and being able to say to yourself, 'We don't know what's going to happen but if you spend money on research, something good will happen and therefore it's worth doing."

Take fiber optics. By the early 1970s Corning scientists had figured out a way to use the product but it took another 17 years of investment in the development of the compositions and the manufacturing process before fiber optics were introduced into the telephone networks and the product started to make money.

"I would say we have lost very, very few people we wanted to keep over the years. And it was not just the pay. We created an environment where we told people, 'You're on the frontier of doing something new. Keep going. Keep going.' And you know what, we kept them."

This is an exclusive excerpt for The Huffington Post. Read more on this interview with James R. Houghton at