HARRODSBURG — One of the most innovative gadgets in a generation, the Apple iPhone, would not have hit the market in 2007 were it not for a 60-year-old glass factory in this Central Kentucky town of 8,300.
The plant — owned by the New York conglomerate Corning Inc. — has been a longtime fixture in Harrodsburg. But its pivotal role in enabling the worldwide sale of millions of iPhones was not widely known until October, when a biography of Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder and chief executive, was published.
In fact, most people in Harrodsburg still aren't aware of it, said Jerry Sampson, who has owned a book and antiques shop in the heart of town for 20 years.
"I think it's a pretty cool feature that, in little Harrodsburg, Kentucky, that glass is made," Sampson said. "All over the world, this iPhone, it's revolutionary. It changed everything."
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In his best-selling biography, journalist Walter Isaacson tells how Jobs challenged Corning to begin churning out a durable, scratch-resistant material called Gorilla Glass for the iPhone's screen.
Apple originally had planned for the iPhone to have a plastic screen, Isaacson wrote. But Jobs decided the device would "feel much more elegant and substantive if the screens were glass."
According to a separate account in The New York Times, Jobs resolved to get a glass screen after carrying around an iPhone prototype in his pocket and finding its plastic screen marred by tiny scratches.
Isaacson says Corning CEO Wendell Weeks told Jobs about an ultrastrong glass the company had developed in the 1960s but shelved because it never found a market. It was called Gorilla Glass, and Jobs wanted to buy as much of it as Corning could produce in six months.
Responding to the impatient Jobs' challenge, the Harrodsburg plant quickly went from making liquid crystal display, or LCD, glass for products such as televisions and monitors to manufacturing Gorilla Glass for the first run of iPhones.
On the day the iPhone hit the market, Jobs sent Weeks a message: "We couldn't have done it without you."
Joe Dunning, a spokesman at Corning's headquarters in Corning, N.Y., declined to verify the details of Isaacson's account. But since the book's publication, Corning has publicly acknowledged its relationship with Apple. It had previously been bound by a non-disclosure agreement that designers like Apple use to keep their competitors from learning too much about their operations, Dunning said. "What we can now say is that we have supplied the glass for iPhones since 2007," he said.
Apple acknowledges its relationship with Corning, too. On its Web site, the company includes as an example of American jobs it supports: "Corning employees in Kentucky and New York who create the majority of the glass for iPhone."
A Corning fact sheet corrects one minor aspect of the book's story. Gorilla Glass was not actually developed in the 1960s, it says, though the company drew on expertise it gained while experimenting with strengthened glass during that era.
The Harrodsburg plant still makes Gorilla Glass, but it does not have the capacity to meet worldwide demand, Dunning said.
The majority of Gorilla Glass is now made at Corning factories in Taiwan and Japan — closer to the electronics manufacturing that occurs in Asia, Dunning said. The iPhone is made in China.
"If you have a component in that supply chain, it would make more sense if you had your plant right next to the next guy's plant and not 8,000 miles away," he said.
Gorilla Glass is now used in more than 600 devices, including smartphones, tablet computers and high- definition TVs, according to Corning. The company sold about $700 million worth of Gorilla Glass last year, nearly triple the amount it sold in 2010.
"It is a real success story for us," said Casey Duffy, who manages the Harrodsburg plant.
The plant churned out the first run of Gorilla Glass, but Duffy said the real contribution of workers in Harrodsburg was reworking the processes to show how it could be done. In recent decades, as manufacturing has moved overseas, the Corning plant has remained "viable and relevant" because it has been the place where Corning's scientists and engineers put their ideas, such as Gorilla Glass, into practice, he said.
"We certainly believe it is our lifeblood here," he said.
And though the majority of Gorilla Glass is made in Asia, its growth has meant jobs and investment in Harrodsburg.
The plant recently underwent a renovation that cost at least $186 million, in part to boost production of Gorilla Glass. In 2010, Corning projected the investment also would mean 80 more jobs at the plant — a mix of production workers and engineers.
Duffy said the plant is on the way to meeting that target, which would mean $6 million in long-term tax incentives from Kentucky and Mercer County. The plant now employs about 400, he said.
From sand and other raw materials to the finished 5-by-6-foot sheets that are shipped across the Pacific Ocean, the glass is made in Harrodsburg mostly without being touched by human hands. Workers are in the background, such as the ones who monitor the robots that cut the glass and package it.
In that sense, the plant is an example of how American manufacturing is becoming more advanced, with automation performing repetitive tasks that used to be done by unskilled workers, said Manoj Shanker, an labor economist with the state Office of Employment and Training.
For instance, being a "sheet glass operator" at the Harrodsburg plant means something much different now than it did 20 years ago, said Wayne Reinsmith, president of the local chapter of United Steel Workers, which represents about 240 workers.
When Reinsmith began working at the plant in 1993, "we had five or six people" cutting the glass and moving it along in the process, he said.
Today's sheet glass operators "are really watching and servicing the robots," he said.
That has meant fewer jobs for rank-and-file workers, but it also has meant opportunities for them to learn such skills as operating machines, which earns a better wage, Reinsmith said.
Of the 80 jobs Corning expects to add at the plant, the average wage is projected to be $25 an hour — higher than the average wage in Kentucky of $18 an hour. A typical rank-and-file union worker makes about $20 an hour, he said. About one-fourth of those jobs will be engineers, and the rest are production workers, Duffy said.
After a Hitachi auto plant with more than 600 workers, Corning is Mercer County's second-biggest employer, said Gayle Horn, the county's deputy judge-executive.
Horn remembers when the plant made lenses for eyeglasses and binoculars. In the 1950s, young men who graduated from Mercer County High School could get a job at the plant and make a middle-class career of it, she said.
"Any citizen in this county is grateful to still have Corning as an industry ... when you think how many years it's been here," Horn said. "And now, it's like it has its second life — it's gone to high-tech."