Abstract: Henry Phelps Gage: Standardizing Entrepreneur at Corning Glass Works, 1911–1947

Margaret Graham


Entrepreneurship and standards-setting activities are usually considered antithetical activities, and for good reason. Innovating entrepreneurs are often neither interested in, nor suited for, the painstaking work of negotiating standards, and even less for the demanding activity of maintaining them. Standards can freeze processes and product to the point that they cannot easily be changed or adapted. In Henry Phelps Gage, employee of the Corning Glass Works research establishment from 1911 to 1947, we have an innovating entrepreneur who was actively involved in the setting, negotiation, and maintenance of key optical standards for colored glasses. Gage promoted an entrepreneurial approach to standards, representing them as providing natural opportunities to develop new products in rapid succession. Gage's career bridged two very different eras in the history of the company, and in the development of its research activities. As head of Corning's optical research laboratory he was first valued and later resented for his entrepreneurial temperament and activities. It was his role as standards representative for Corning and his problem-solving relationships with customers that made him important to the company in both eras. While the role of context has increasingly been recognized in economic history, the effect of changing business context, both in the company and in the wider business environment, on companies' ability to innovate has not often been explicitly documented. Gage's career as an entrepreneurial standard setter demonstrates the effect of changing historical context on the careers of a company's employees as well as on the relationship between standards and company strategy.