Crazy About Rubber
“There is probably no other inert substance, the properties of which excite in the human mind, when first called to examine it, an equal amount of curiosity, surprise, and admiration. Who can examine, and reflect upon this property of gum-elastic, without adoring the wisdom of the Creator?”
One might expect such hyperbole from the man who wrote that, Charles Goodyear, for his enthusiasm for rubber was boundless and famous. Even his admirers would quote the description offered by a more skeptical observer: “If you meet a man who has on an india rubber cap, stock, coat, vest and shoes, with an india rubber money purse, without a cent of money in it , that is he.”
It is easy to make fun of the much-mocked inventor, but consider the object of his passion. Rubber is a fascinating substance, quite unlike anything else we regularly encounter. There are few substances capable of assuming so many forms, textures, and functions, from a child’s balloon to a bowling ball, from shoe heels to rubber bands, from pocket combs to electric plugs, from galoshes to tires. And consider the properties that make these uses possible. Rubber is waterproof, tough, moldable, electrically resistant, and, above all, elastic. Despite the emergence of synthetic rubbers, natural rubber is still very important today—especially for tire treads, because it resists heat well. The springy, stretchy, pliable sub- stance evokes its own special; adjective—”rubbery.” Small wonder, then, that Charles Goodyear did not suffer his enthusiasm without company; the object of his attentions, the very center of his life, had been a source of wonder and curiosity for almost a century before Goodyear made his legendary stove-top discovery of vulcanization in 1839 and put down his reflections on rubber in the 1850s.
As early as the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers in South and Central America reported watching Indians play games with balls that bounced with the slightest effort. In seventeenth-century Mexico, Juan de Torquemada observed Indians making waterproof shoes, headgear, and clothing with some kind of vegetable gum. Beginning in 1735 C. M. de La Condamine, a member of France’s Royal Academy of Sciences, spent almost ten years in the mountains and jungles of Peru and Brazil. Upon his return he published an account of his group’s travels that included observations of the Omaguas, an Amazonian tribe that “make a very queer use of this resin; they make bottles of it shaped like a pear and they attach a wooden portion to it; by pressing, the liquid contained in the bottle is expelled through the wooden part; the bottles become real syringes.”
De La Condamine described other applications of the material and reported that the Peruvian Indians called it caoutchouc (still the French word for rubber); so striking was its use for syringes that the Portuguese dubbed the rubber plant the syringe tree ( pao xiringa ). In a memoir to the Academy of Sciences in 1752, de La Condamine also passed on the observations of the French engineer C. F. Fresneau, who had encountered caoutchouc while exploring French Guiana. Fresneau made the first observations of the extraction of rubber and Indian techniques for manufacturing it. An avid experimenter himself, he was able to make balls and bracelets and a pair of rubber boots. He also tried to find a means for keeping rubber in solution. Since latex was only workable freshly tapped from the rubber tree, the problem of finding a solvent that would make the material usable (or at least spreadable) long after extraction assumed great importance to the Europeans.
Within a few years small amounts of rubber made their way to Europe for the first time, generally in the form of “bottles"—probably the same syringes de La Condamine found so striking. The material was little more than a curiosity, its only real practical application being the one that the English chemist Joseph Priestley described in 1770, when he remarked that a small cube of caoutchouc was handy for rubbing out pencil marks—hence the English term, used in no other language, “rubber.” Chemists continued trying to find appropriate solvents, attaining only partial success with common ones like ether and turpentine. The belief took hold that a rubber solution that could be spread on other materials would provide the ideal waterproofing. The potential for such a substance was illustrated nicely in 1785, when J. A. C. Charles and Jean Robert ascended over Paris in a hydrogen-filled balloon of rubber-coated silk. Only five years later the first patents were issued in England for waterproofing solutions made of rubber.
It might seem that the beginning of the nineteenth century would see rubber becoming a useful and widely admired material. But with existing solvents the material never seemed to dry, leaving a sticky, gummy surface that was unpleasant and impractical. It was still not possible to ship the material from South America and later form it into shapes. The only application that really advanced beyond erasers was the use of strings cut from the imported bottles and wound around thread to make elastic webbing, which began to find its way into suspenders. The perfect waterproofing compound still eluded experimenters, and the vision of making rubber into complete shapes like boots or balls seemed remote indeed.
To many men before Goodyear, however, rubber’s drawbacks were not inherent defects but challenges to human ingenuity. As chemical science expanded in the first decades of the nineteenth century, experiments on rubber solvents went on, but with few advances. Patents continued to be issued for waterproofing solutions, varnishes, and even inflatable beds and cushions and other applications. But little commercial success was in sight until the material could be more easily worked and made less tacky.
The first breakthrough turned out to be not chemical but mechanical. In the 1820s Thomas Hancock, in England, began experimenting with ways to make use of rubber scraps. As Hancock later admitted, he had much experience with machinery, “but of chemical knowledge I had almost none.” Since no solvent was satisfactory, waste bits of rubber cut from the bottle shapes supplied by the Indians were useless. But Hancock observed that fresh-cut pieces of rubber were stickier than older ones and that quickly cutting pieces of rubber produced heat. He therefore built a machine that chewed up the rubber scraps—a giant “masticator.” The machine generated enormous quantities of heat and solid blocks of workable rubber. The qualities of the finished rub- ber did not differ from that supplied by the Indians, but from the blocks of it rubber sheets, tubes, and other shapes could be readily produced. In 1825 Hancock joined with a Scottish rubber pioneer, Charles Macintosh, who was mixing waste naphtha from coal-gas plants with rubber and sandwiching it between double layers of cloth—making “mackintoshes” and a whole host of other waterproof goods. Building on the work of Hancock and Macintosh, the British quickly became the world’s leaders in rubber manufacture.
In the United States enterprising sea captains began taking on small loads of crude rubber goods, largely boots and shoes, in their South American cargoes in the mid-1820s. By 1830 stores in Boston were regularly advertising rubber footwear and even occasionally rubber balls. By the middle of the decade there was talk of a “rubber boom.” The first and largest of several factories that opened was that of the Roxbury India Rubber Company, set up just outside Boston. There processes similar to those used by Hancock and Macintosh were used to make masses of rubber that could be applied with solvents to cloth. When the architect and engineer Robert Mills visited the Roxbury factory in 1833 or ’34, he described a dazzling array of new products. In addition to the shoes and boots (still the mainstay of rubber manufacturing), there were rubber-coated jackets, pants, vests, aprons, caps, and capes, inflatable pillows, life preservers, fire hose, and flexible rubber pipe.
The rubber boom of the 1830s was a vigorous one. Factories appeared in other Boston suburbs and in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Imports of the raw material from Brazil increased tenfold between 1828 and 1834, and novel products caught the attention of both the commercial world and a curious public. Air mattresses were devised, promising safety for the seaborne and comfort for the sick (King George IV was said to have died on one). Portable bathtubs, waterproof mailbags, and rubber toys also appeared. Machinists attempted to use rubberized cloth for belting, and rubber “springs” were tried on carriages.
The great boom came to a crashing end. The immediate cause for the failure of most of the rubber companies was the Panic of 1837, which put hundreds of fledgling industrial enterprises under in a matter of months. But the rubber manufacturers were particularly vulnerable; it had become apparent that their product still had serious deficiencies. In 1836 the Roxbury Company, for example, had to take back thirty thousand dollars’ worth of sold goods—capes, life preservers, shoes, and wagon covers that trickled back into the shop as smelly, sticky, shapeless lumps of rubber and cloth. The warm North American summers took a toll on rubber goods that the British makers rarely had to deal with; rubber’s tendency to soften and even run in hot weather was not arrested by any of the manufacturing practices of the day. The use of solvents like turpentine or naphtha made things even worse, and it was soon discovered that extreme cold could make rubber so hard and brittle that it would crack with the slighest use. Finally, over time it was observed that simple exposure to air and light would cause rubber goods to decompose, turning into flakes or dust. An old rubber band—dried, sticky, and cracking—is perhaps the closest the modern observer can find to something resembling this early rubber, for all the products of the boom itself have long since turned to dust.
Not only were fortunes lost in the great rubber bust, but the reputation of rubber itself suffered mightly. As early as August 1837 a New York journalist wrote: “The failure of the gum to answer the purposes anticipated, and the almost entire abandonment of the manufacture, has become a subject of general notoriety, without the cause of such failure being generally known.” After enumerating the problems with rubber, the reporter pointed to a hopeful sign: “Mr. G.’s entire success in overcoming these objections, as well as adding such variety and beauty to his fabrics, had been the result of three years’ constant experiments; and the new uses to which this material becomes applicable, such as maps, charts, carpeting, &c., follow in consequence. We understand Mr. G. is one of the firm of Goodyear & Sons, hardware merchants and manufacturers.” Goodyear & Sons was an early victim of the country’s financial woes; “Mr. G” was soon to link his destiny finally and inextricably to rubber.
Charles Goodyear had already decided that he was better suited to inventing than to hardware dealing. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1800, he was trained in technical matters by his father, Amasa, whose patent hay fork was one of several innovations in the mundane but important implements of American life. Goodyear’s acquaintance with rubber was initially that of a mechanic, as he tried to use it in one or two of his own mechanical contrivances, such as an improved faucet. But in 1834, as he told the story, he purchased an inflatable life preserver and began dabbling with the valve. Upon returning to the rubber merchant with his improvement, he was told there was little call for such things, since the instability of the rubber itself was proving an insurmountable problem. Thereupon Goodyear determined to solve the greater problem—to make rubber into a stable, dependable material.
After the bankruptcy of Goodyear & Sons, Charles set himself up as a blacksmith in Philadelphia, but he soon uprooted his family and began moving around the Northeast, seeking backing for his work on rubber and advice from experienced rubber producers. He was debt-ridden for the rest of his days, but his enthusiasm and sometimes disarming sincerity always managed to find enough greed, hope, or pity to win financial resources for his work. His efforts necessarily brought him to the Boston area, where he visted the Roxbury Company in 1837, shortly before it folded. He also called on the newer and smaller Eagle Rubber Company in Woburn, near Boston. There he met Nathaniel Hayward, the thirtyone-year-old who kept the company going, making shoes and aprons after the other backers panicked. In September 1838 Hayward sold out to Goodyear, whose amazing powers of persuasion were able to find a hopeful lender even in the midst of a depression. Hayward did not give up on rubber; he agreed to work for Goodyear for at least a year and brought to the ever-optimistic linkerer a seasoning of real rubber-factory experience.
Nathaniel Hayward also brought with him sulfur. The fumes may have assaulted Goodyear’s nose the first time he entered the Woburn factory, and Hayward later said that Goodyear was quick to ask him about it. Just why Hayward was using sulfur in rubber is not clear—apparently he discovered empirically that it helped in drying his rubbercoated cloth, especially when the material was set out in the sun. Earlier chemists had referred to the usefulness of sulfur in rubber solvents, so it was not an odd material to try out. In any case, when Charles Goodyear resumed his rubber experiments in Woburn, sulfur was about. And when in the winter of 1839 Goodyear accidentally dropped one of his rubber samples, coated with sulfur and white lead (a common pigment used to stabilize the rubber), onto a hot stove, he knew that the result—a piece of rubber that charred but did not melt on the stove—was due to sulfur.
To say, as tradition does, that this discovery of vulcanization was an accident is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of scientific and technical work. Goodyear never denied that chance had a hand in presenting that combination of rubber, sulfur, and heat on that cold winter day in Woburn. But he also made it clear that only a mind prepared by years of labor and hope and hundreds of observations of how rubber behaved would have seen what he saw on that stove. He quickly tacked up a piece of the treated rubber outside in the New England winter and found out that it retained its pliability and elasticity when cold, and that the effect did not wear off in a few hours or days or weeks. But months and years of experimenting followed, as Goodyear struggled to understand just what he had made and how he could make it consistent and useful. He was so sure that he had seen what few others would be prepared to see that he failed to take out a patent for several years, trusting secrecy to keep his invention his own.
At just the moment when a great technical discovery was at hand, Charles Goodyear’s luck ran out. By 1839 the rubber industry in general and Goodyear in particular were in such bad repute among investors that he could get no one to listen to him. Some spectacular failures in products made by the Eagle Rubber Company overshadowed his claim to have made a real breakthrough. Not until 1841 did Goodyear, now in Springfield, Massachusetts, get enough support to pursue the experiments that gave him control over his new process, and only in April of 1842 was he able to manufacture the rubber sheets he wanted. In the meantime he was reduced to begging from anyone who would listen and was imprisoned for debt more than once before finally declaring himself bankrupt. By 1843, however, his fortunes revived and he finally applied for patent protection for his “Improvement in India-Rubber Fabrics.” The result, U.S. Patent 3633, became one of the most litigated in history; in its first twelve years at least 150 suits were filed, and legal expenses were estimated to exceed six hundred thousand dollars.
So dire were his circumstances, Goodyear began selling licenses for his new rubber processes as soon as he could. Thanks to his years of difficulty and his reputation, many of the early licenses were broad and cheap. He managed, with the help of friends, to keep some control over the manufacture of shoes, for some time to come still the most important rubber product, but he was free and careless in allowing his invention to be used for other products. Besides, he had long before concluded that he was not a businessman or manufacturer but an inventor, so he committed his time and energy to developing new uses for his “metallic” rubber.
Among Goodyear’s careless moves was sending several samples of his product to England in 1842, with the intention of persuading Macintosh & Co. to purchase general rights for a large sum. Macintosh was not interested, but some of the samples made their way into the hands of Thomas Hancock, who had twenty years earlier built the machine to fuse rubber scraps into blocks. Hancock set out to find Goodyear’s secret, and by mid-1843 Hancock understood the role of sulfur in the new rubber. This was early enough to thwart Goodyear’s belated efforts to take out an English patent, even though it was only later (perhaps after reading Goodyear’s applications) that Hancock realized the crucial role of heat in the process. Hancock’s claimed discovery of the process to which he gave the name vulcanization was actually a brilliant piece of chemical detective work, even if it did not qualify as an original invention.
Further carelessness cost Goodyear his patent claims in France as well, although Europeans were ready to acknowledge the importance and usefulness of his discoveries. At the great international exhibitions in London and Paris in the 1850s, the world could see something of Goodyear’s full vision—not simply an improved rubber but a truly new material for a fantastic variety of uses. He and his brother Nelson discovered that by extend- ing the heating and sulfurization of rubber they could produce hard rubber—a substance that Goodyear, borrowing from Hancock’s term, dubbed “vulcanite.” This took a central place in the display at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, made into everything from combs and walking sticks to desks and walls. And around the Vulcanite Court were applications of Goodyear’s true favorite material—his rubber sheet and tissue. Giant rubber rafts and balloons were hung from the ceiling, and large inflated globes, touted as combined navigational aids and life-saving devices, were proudly featured. The spectacle, which cost Goodyear thirty thousand dollars, was one of the few American displays to win a medal at the exhibition. The success, at a comparable cost, was matched in Paris, where, in a scene that encapsulates the poignancy of his life, Goodyear received word of his honors while sitting in a Parisian debtor’s prison.
Even Goodyear’s apologists readily admitted there was something about money that the man just couldn’t handle. Some ascribed it to his faithfulness in paying off his and others’ debts, but this sounds like special pleading. Others pointed to the extraordinary expenses incurred by his devotion to rubber, especially the great legal costs. (Secretary of State Daniel Webster left Washington in 1852 to plead a case on Goodyear’s behalf for a fee of fifteen thousand dollars.) More likely Charles Goodyear simply fell into that category of men, in which not a few notable inventors have belonged, who were never able to calculate the bounds of fiscal responsibility. Suffering with him were his two wives (the first died in 1853) and six children, who had to travel about with him sometimes not knowing where their next bed would be or if they would have to beg some friend to get Charles out of jail. His sons, however, were always faithful to their father and his memory, so love seems not to have been lacking. When Goodyear died in 1860, he left his widow and six children two hundred thousand dollars in debts.
Goodyear, the man, simply lacked the sense of proportion that guides most people in life. Even a sympathetic nineteenth-century reviewer called him an “India-rubber monomaniac,” and perhaps Goodyear himself would not have denied it. He would have preferred putting it differently, simply speaking of his recognition of rubber’s possibilities and of his own capacities for discovering them; “beyond this,” Goodyear wrote, he “would refer the whole to the great Creator, who directs the operations of mind to the development of the properties of matter, in His own way, at the time when they are specially needed, influencing some mind for every work or calling.”