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NUTS & BOLTS : GTE Has a Bright Idea for Floor Tile

December 01, 1990|PATRICK MOTT

Anyone who goes to school at USC gets buried hip deep in Trojan football lore almost from the moment the letter of acceptance arrives. By the first class meeting, freshmen Troj will have been whipped into a frenzy of collegiate zeal by tales of O.J. Simpson, Lynn Swann, Pat Haden, Mike Garrett, Anthony Davis and the cosmic 55-24 comeback against Notre Dame.

And it's a cinch that they'll also have marveled at the legend of Mike Battle, Tim Rossovich and the light bulbs.

Battle and Rossovich were athletes of the kamikaze variety. They played for USC in the 1960s and palled around together in much the same way bighorn sheep do. According to the legend, they constantly challenged each other to strange, ill-advised and often painful feats of physical daring.

Supposedly, one of these involved eating light bulbs. They would sit across a table from one another, snatch up a couple of Sylvanias and chow down. It was generally acknowledged that they didn't eat the entire bulb, but left the metal screw part and most of the filament on the plate.

It made for a fantastic yarn. Nevertheless, with a story like that circulating through the league, opposing players tended to look at the pair with awe, suspicion and fear.

All this isn't meant to scare the people at GTE, but if either Battle or Rossovich shows up one day at GTE's tile plant in Wellsboro, Pa., looking hungry, they might want to consider shutting the place down and taking the rest of the week off.

Yes, tile. GTE does indeed make telephones and lots of the things that go with them, but they also make light bulbs. Side by side in Wellsboro are the GTE Glass Products plant and the relatively new GTE Engineered Ceramics plant. Between the two runs a conveyor belt that carries tons and tons of stuff that Battle and Rossovich may at one time have considered to be an excellent source of dietary fiber.

In short, GTE is making ceramic household tile from surplus light bulb glass.

This new sideline for the phone folks got started when the light bulb people started looking for a way to use glass left over from the bulb-making process. Only 30% of the highly refined glass manufactured at the plant is actually made into bulbs, said GTE marketing manager Frank Pellegrino. Of the remaining 70%, most is remelted and used again. But about a fourth of that remainder was carted away as waste.

The engineers started casting around for a way to use the waste glass. And now, after about four years of research and development, they've come up with a brand of tile they call Prominence. It's composed of 61% light bulb glass; the remaining 39% is made up of three types of clay.

At first, this sounded a bit like building a bicycle out of cement. It might work, but. . . .

After all, you walk on tile. You set heavy pots down on it. If you get excited, you jump up and down on it. Tile made from glass sounded--to me, anyway--brittle and slippery, something you could only walk on in Air Jordans and had to clean with a Zamboni ice machine.

Not so, said Pellegrino. On the Mohs' scale of hardness, the new tile is comparable to conventional clay tile, he said. And, he added, it has a coefficient of friction (Mr. Science talk for how slippery it is) of .70. Tile is considered slip-resistant, he said, at .50.

The real advantage, however, is the purity of the material, Pellegrino said. With conventional clay tile, "you're dealing with an impure material. If you order, for instance, an azure blue, you can receive six or seven different shades sometimes."

The new tile, however, has "sizing and shade variations that are much smaller in any degree than are available in the industry today," Pellegrino said.

This means that every tile in the box is exactly the same size and color. The stuff is also highly resistant to scratching and staining.

Today, the Prominence tile is available in 11 monochrome colors, with the sorts of glorious names that are usual for decorative materials. Among them: sterling (light gray), lilac, rose, peach, pistachio and jasper (a robin's egg blue). GTE also has just come out with what Pellegrino called three new "bold" monochromes: teal, cobalt and burgundy. And next year, he said, the company is scheduled to introduce six polychrome varieties (a blend of colors) and nine new colors, for a total of nearly 30 varieties of tile.

Latco Products (the Los Angeles Tile Company) has exclusive distribution rights for the tile in California and Nevada. Latco's Orange County showroom is in Costa Mesa.

This may or may not be good news for Battle and Rossovich, depending on whether the bizarre stories about them during their USC days are true.

I've lost track of them, but I believe that unless they've become bloodthirsty mercenaries in some fetid jungle somewhere, they're probably fine gentlemen of reasonably mature years with families and mortgages, who go to PTA meetings and fret about the kids' braces and wouldn't dream of ripping a hole in Latco's showroom wall on the night of the full moon and making a meal of a few crates of pistachio floor tile.

Nah. Once you get used to it, there's nothing like plain vanilla light bulbs with just a dash of filament.

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