A Brief History of Spectrum

Twenty years ago this year, Spectrum Glass was more than just an idea, but not much more. In 1974, it was the prototype in the picture here: a miniature, handmade furnace and roll machine, held together with strapping tape and bailing wire, standing alone on the floor of an otherwise empty warehouse in a run down neighborhood of west Seattle. The thin ribbon of sheet glass feeding from the rollers and crashing to the floor marked the real beginning of Spectrum, and proved to Don Hansen, Ron Smids and Jerry Rhodes that their idea for a new way to make art glass was viable.

Their partnership had actually begun four years earlier, when they were employees of a Seattle company called Penberthy Electromelt. For Penberthy, they traveled the world, assisting glass factories in the conversion of gas-fired furnaces to cleaner, more fuel efficient electric ones. In addition to a common love for glass, the three engineers had a gnawing case of the Entrepreneurial Spirit. They wanted to be their own boss.

Initially, glass took a back seat to more visible opportunities. In 1970, Don, Ron and Jerry quit their jobs and started a business called West Coast Specialties in the basement of one of their homes. They spent the next two years there, soldering electric components for a manufacturer of airport luggage-handling equipment. They hoped to eventually expand out of the basement and grow into a full-fledged electronics firm, but that course was altered forever by one phone call from their friend Roger Ek.

Roger, another Penberthy employee, had recently been contacted by his cousin, Dale Chihuly. Dale was camped out on Mt. Pilchuck, north of Seattle, along with Fritz Dreisbach and a handful of other glass blowers who were trying to start a school for glass artists. At the time, they were having serious problems melting a clean, white, opalescent glass in their blowing furnaces. Dale called Roger for technical advice, who in turn contacted Don, Ron and Jerry.

That phone call marks the entrepreneurs' first real contact with the glass arts. They made a few trips up to Pilchuck, helped Dale and Fritz figure out their melting problems, and in the process met a number of young people involved in stained glass. One thing that kept surfacing in conversation with these artists was their frustration with a continuing shortage of opalescent and cathedral sheet glass.

At the time, 1973, there were really only two art glass manufacturers of any significance in the U.S.—Wissmach and Kokomo. Both had been making fine products for generations, but neither was showing any inclination to increase production to meet the "new demand." In retrospect, this is understandable. Across a century or so, they had seen many good times come and go for stained glass. There was no reason for them to believe that the current "good times" for their products wouldn't wane others had before.

But Don, Ron and Jerry saw things through fresh eyes. They saw people lined up for blocks at the doors of a local flat glass company, because of a rumor that the company would receive a delivery from Wissmach that day. And they saw the same phenomenon occurring all over the country. Companies that had "buying rights" with Wissmach and Kokomo were waiting six months to two years for delivery of their orders.

This "new demand" wasn't due to a sudden burst in church construction, and it wasn't due to the growth of traditional stained glass studios. It was fueled by new buyers, young people who were discovering stained glass as a craft and a medium of artistic expression. It was driven by new companies struggling to enter the business but being stifled by a stranglehold on the glass supply. What Don, Ron and Jerry saw was an incredible imbalance of supply and demand, and that spelled opportunity.

Having decided to "go for it," the entrepreneurs made three critical design decisions that would ultimately distinguish their glass-making process from every other factory on the globe: they designed electric furnaces instead of gas-fired, they designed a modern continuous-melt process instead of a single sheet production system, and they conceived of a way to flow molten glass from separate furnaces into a single channel—a way to make mixed-opalescent glass in a continuous-flow operation.

The first of those decisions, electric-melt furnaces, was a given. This was their area of mutual expertise and, in those days, electricity was significantly less expensive than natural gas.

They had plenty of previous exposure to continuous-melt glassmaking operations as well, since it had long since come to dominate sheet glass production technology. And continuous-melt had four definite advnatages over single-sheet systems that would be especially valuable in art glass production: consistency, cutability, surface brilliance, and volume.

Having decided on a continuous-flow design, the ability to make multicolored glass in the system became more of a necessity than a stroke of brilliance. Plus, they were blessed with the luxury of ignorance: they didn't know that it couldn't be done.

A few years earlier, a highly reputable, technically advanced European glass company had put great effort into producing multicolored sheet glass continuously, only to fail after a major investment of time and money. Don, Ron and Jerry didn't know this until many years later, and now admit that, had they known, they might never have tried.

Their concept was a simple one: Melt white glass in one furnace, colored glass in another, and direct the flows into a single channel. At the confluence, they designed a mechanized paddle-wheel that mixed the two glasses together to create the variegation. Initial tests with this design failed miserably. But, they discovered that a furnace operator with a steel rod could stir the glasses together by hand, creating a saleable product while they continued to refine the paddle-wheel design. This went on for many months. As time went by, the furnace operator got better and better with the stirring rod. He could create broad, lazy swirls or tight little curls. He could blend colors together so they seemed to homogenize, or he could keep them distinct and contrasting. About the time he learned to write his girlfriend's name in the glass, Don, Ron and Jerry abondoned the paddle-wheel idea and began to train others to stir by hand.

Many things have changed in the Spectrum process since that time, but the essentials remain the same. Instead of flowing glass from twin continuous furnaces into a single channel, we now hand-ladle secondary colors into the continuous flow. All glass is still stirred by hand; all glass is still cut by hand. Ron Smids and Jerry Rhodes left the partnership in the early eighties; Don Hansen remains today as company President and Plant Manager. Fritz Dreisbach, now a highly accomplished blown glass artist, is Spectrum's chief Glass Technologist.


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