What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘rubber’? The eraser you use at school perhaps. Or maybe your shoes? The tyres of millions of cars, bikes and aeroplanes that zip around the world are all made of rubber and even tarmac roads contain some amount of rubber. Based on the need and the function, rubber can be moulded into a variety of forms. It can be hard and tough to resist extreme weather conditions or soft enough to not tear paper when rubbed against it. But did you know that we did not always have access to so many convenient forms of rubber? Although we discovered rubber thousands of years ago, processing it was a messy affair. Ultimately, it was one man’s accident that led to a new process of treating rubber which in turn led to its wide use in products that we see all around us today. This is the Origin Story of vulcanised rubber.
The history of natural rubber
Rubber is by no means a new substance. The first humans to discover rubber were an ancient civilization called the Olmecs, who lived on the American continent. They extracted natural rubber in liquid form (called latex) by tapping the sap of the Amazonian rubber tree (scientific name: Hevea brasiliensis). Rubber in its natural form is a thick, sticky, sappy liquid. The Olmecs dried the sap and used this crude form of rubber to make, among other things, a ball that was used in an ancient sport that resembles modern-day football.
The knowledge of tapping rubber was passed on to the Mayan civilization, who used rubber to make containers and clothes waterproof. This came in handy while living in rainforests where everything was wet all the time! When European explorers brought rubber back to the continent, people were fascinated by the strange substance’s properties. This gooey, milky sap that came from a faraway tree was convenient to use, waterproof and easy to stretch into different shapes and sizes.
In 1770, an English chemist and philosopher by the name of Joseph Priestley noticed that a dried chunk of natural rubber was very efficient at erasing pencil marks off of paper without damaging the surface of the paper. This is why even today, the eraser in your pencil box is also simply called ‘rubber’. By the 1800s, the rubber industry had taken off. Businesses started staking their future on the substance and it looked like rubber would soon become a widely used substance around the world. But there was one problem!
The problem with natural rubber
While rubber or ‘India rubber,’ as it was called back then, was making waves across Europe for its near magical qualities, it soon became apparent that there was one major issue with the substance: it melted back into a gooey mess under the hot summer sun and turned hard and brittle, and would break easily in the winter. By the 1800s, the rubber industry was on the verge of collapse. What good was a miracle substance if it turned into a blob in the summers and cracked into powder during the winters? The hunt to save the industry and find a solution to this messy problem had begun! And the solution would appear through one man’s unlikely accident.
Charles Goodyear’s accidental discovery
In 1834, when the rubber industry was just beginning to take off, a chemist and entrepreneur by the name of Charles Goodyear made a trip to New York to visit the Roxbury India Rubber Company. At the store, Goodyear saw rubber life jackets that the company made and was determined to find a way to make a better valve for the jackets. But the manager of the store directed Goodyear’s attention to a more pressing issue. He showed him a huge collection of melted blobs of rubber that could not withstand high temperatures. How to get this substance to be stable was still an unsolved memory.
For the next five years, Goodyear was obsessed with finding a solution to this sticky problem. He began to travel all over the country and set up his makeshift laboratory anywhere that he could with the help of any investor who was willing to fund him. He experimented with a wide variety of substances, spending many hours hunched over his experiments, surrounded by toxic fumes. But even after several attempts, Goodyear remained unsuccessful. What’s worse is that he ran out of money and was even sent to debtor’s prison for not being able to pay his loans back.
But Goodyear remained determined. Even behind bars, he continued his experiments. In one such instance, he heated India rubber while carefully adding Magnesium Oxide. The result was a white compound without any of the stickiness of the natural rubber. With the help of his wife and children, Goodyear made shoes out of his new rubber compound. But soon, he realised that the shoes would turn soft and sticky after a while.
With the failure of the new compound, Goodyear lost support from any potential investors and was left in poverty yet again. Still determined to go on, he started selling all his possessions, including his furniture and even his children’s textbooks to fund his experiments. Explaining Goodyear’s plight, his biographer, Charles Slack wrote, “He spared a set of china teacups, not out of sentiment but because they could double in the evenings as mixing bowls for rubber and turpentine.”
Goodyear continued his experiments with rubber and Magnesium Oxide, this time by boiling it in a solution of quicklime (Calcium Oxide) and water. The result was a fairly stable rubber compound that appeared to finally solve the sticky problem! Goodyear’s success was immediately noticed abroad and news of his success spread far and wide. He thought he had finally succeeded until one day he noticed that a drop of nitric acid fell on a patch of rubber fabric made from his new process. The acid caused the rubber to become soft again and Goodyear was back to square one!
Being the determined man that he was, Goodyear decided to turn his recent misfortune into an opportunity. He worked extensively with rubber and nitric acid discovered that rubber dipped in nitric acid came out with a ‘cured’ surface. Goodyear made many successful products with this cured rubber which quickly became popular for their its high quality. He even received a letter of praise from the then President of the United States, Andrew Jackson.
But the problem of making stable rubber at extreme temperatures still remained. As luck would have it, in 1839, while working at the Eagle India Rubber Company in Woburn, Massachusetts, another accident would finally solve the issue. While heating rubber on a hot stove, Goodyear accidentally dropped some sulphur in it. To his surprise, he noticed that in spite of the heat, the rubber did not melt but formed a hard and tough compound instead. The problem of stabilising rubber was finally solved!
It would take Goodyear several more years to perfect the process of mixing sulphur and rubber at a high temperature but in 1844, he finally received a patent for his process. That same year, he went on to establish the Naugatuck India-Rubber Company in Massachusets, USA. Goodyear named his discovery ‘vulcanisation’ and the final product of the process is called ‘vulcanised rubber’.
Charles Goodyear’s legacy
Vulcanised rubber went on to be one of the most widely used substances in the world and is still used widely today. Everything from tires to shoes to raincoats to pipes and practically any product with rubber uses some form of Goodyear’s vulcanisation method. But Goodyear’s success didn’t last for too long. While he had a great mind for experimentation, he was not the best at making business decisions. He revealed his formula to other interested people who made their own versions of vulcanised rubber. He spent much of the fortune he earned from his patent fighting cases in courts of law. The many years of exhaling toxic fumes took a toll on Goodyear’s health. On July 1, 1860, Goodyear was travelling to New York to meet his daughter, who was severely unwell. On reaching New York, he was informed that she had already died. Goodyear collapsed on hearing the news and that was the last he ever breathed.
In spite of his many failures and shortcomings, Goodyear’s legacy lives on. Almost 40 years after his death, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was founded and named after him. Goodyear is a widely recognised brand to this day and you might have even seen many ads for their tires, famously floating in the sky in the form of giant blimps.
Charles Goodyear’s story is one of sheer will and determination. He has taught us that if we set our minds to accomplish something and stick to it no matter what, we are bound to succeed. So that was the Origin Story of vulcanised rubber. The rest, as they say, is history!