S. Donald Stookey, a chemist who created a synthetic ceramic glass that could withstand heat up to 1,300 degrees, a material initially used in guided missiles but that became a consumer sensation as the durable kitchen product CorningWare, died Nov. 4 in Pittsford, N.Y. He was 99.
The cause was complications from hip surgery, said a son, Donald B. Stookey.
Dr. Stookey was a lifer at Corning Glass Works in upstate New York. The prolific inventor helped make a photosensitive glass used in buildings such as the United Nations headquarters and photochromic glass to make eyeglasses that darken in response to light.
For all his industriousness, it was a botched experiment that brought him his greatest renown — revolutionizing cookware and creating a new industry exploring the possibilities of superstrong synthetic glass.
Dr. Stookey was director of fundamental chemical research at Corning when, in 1957, he drew national attention for developing Pyroceram, a product that could endure the intense heat generated by air resistance and encountered by missiles in flight.
After the product’s military uses had been explored — it was used on nose cones of guided missiles— Corning announced its workaday relevance for home cooks. Suddenly, instead of dirtying sinkloads of pans and serving dishes, they could bring casseroles and lasagnas from freezer to stove to dinner table in one attractive, shatter-proof dish.
For years, CorningWare was easily recognizable for the blue cornflower motif on its sides. More than five decades later, still a staple of wedding registries, it commonly comes in a sophisticated white.
Officials at Corning, a venerable glassworks founded in 1851, called Pyroceram the most important technological advance since the discovery of borosilicate glass in the late 19th century. Corning had marketed that innovation as Pyrex, which became a staple of laboratory glassware and kitchenware for decades.
Pyroceram was even more durable than Pyrex, a quality demonstrated when Corning officials heated it with an acetylene torch and then plunged it into ice water. This maneuver would cause most other products to shatter. The New York Times said Dr. Stookey, with Pyroceram, had managed to “crack the thermal barrier.”
He said his creation was serendipitous. He had left a plate of photosensitive glass in a furnace heated to 900 degrees Celsius (1,652 degrees Fahrenheit) — 300 degrees higher than he intended. He cursed when he realized his mistake. He thought he would open the oven to find a pool of molten glass, which would have ruined the furnace. He imaged himself filling out reams of paperwork accounting for the error.
But the plate — astonishingly — had not melted. Instead, it had turned opaque, with a milky-white appearance. Impatiently, he reached in with tongs to remove the glass. When the tongs slipped from his grip, the plate bounced on the floor, clanging like steel.
“It crystallized so completely that it could not flow,” he later wrote, referring to the molten quality he expected, “and was obviously much stronger than ordinary glass.”
He began a series of experiments to fine-tune the heat-treatment process that could transform glass objects into fine-grained ceramics.
Pyroceram’s resistance to “thermal shock” was only one of its qualities. It was harder than carbon steel, lighter than aluminum and about nine times stronger than plate glass, the Times reported. CorningWare began mass production in 1958.
In addition to its oven and missile cap applicability, NASA has used ceramic glass nuts and bolts on the space shuttle. The product’s imperishability was so great, Dr. Stookey once said, that CorningWare often has been the only object to survive a home fire.
Stanley Donald Stookey was born in Hay Springs, Neb., on May 23, 1915. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he graduated in 1936 from Coe College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics. Two years later, he received a master’s degree in chemistry from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.
After earning a doctorate in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940, he joined the Corning research lab.
“Glass chemistry research had barely started,” he once told the American Ceramic Society Bulletin. “My main objective was to be a pioneer, discover new things, produce things that had never been seen before.”
Amid a copper shortage during World War II, he joined a Corning effort to create pennies from photosensitive glass discs — with Lincoln’s image appearing within the glass. The project was scotched because it cost 25 cents to make a penny; zinc was used in lieu of copper.
In 1998, 11 years after Dr. Stookey retired, Corning sold its consumer products business, including CorningWare, to Illinois-based World Kitchen.
Dr. Stookey’s wife, Ruth Watterson, whom he married in 1940, died in 1994, and their daughter, Margaret Zak, died in 1988. Survivors include two children, Robert Stookey of Rochester, N.Y. and Donald B. Stookey of Utica, N.Y.; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Dr. Stookey was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 for having spurred “a new field of research in glass.” In 1986 he received the National Medal of Technology, which cited his developments at Corning for producing “$500 million in annual sales and over 10,000 jobs.”
“One of the things that makes me proud,” Dr. Stookey told the Associated Press in 1986, “is that fairly often someone I don’t know — one of the workers in the factory — will stop me on the street and actually thank me for his job.”