The Rubber Bible
For nearly a century it has been indispensable for chemists
ANYONE WHO HAS TAKEN FRESHMAN CHEMISTRY KNOWS THE CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics . Its origins go back to 1907, the year Arthur Friedman graduated from the Case School of Applied Science (now part of Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland. While an undergraduate, Friedman had a part-time business making rubber aprons for laboratory use. Once he received his degree, Friedman established a full-scale manufacturing operation, the Chemical Rubber Company, to produce all kinds of rubber laboratory products.
As a sales premium, Friedman compiled a booklet with basic mathematical information, formulas, and a periodic table of the elements (which had some blank spaces, since only 81 elements had been identified at that time). For every 10 aprons they ordered, buyers got one copy. In 1913, having grown to 116 pages, it was first published under the name Handbook of Chemistry and Physics . The following year it began to be sold on its own, and by 1918 it totaled 478 pages and cost two dollars.
From the start, scientific data, such as spectroscopy tables, was interspersed with practical information, such as wire-gauge tables. In its early days the handbook also had a section called “Laboratory Arts and Recipes,” which included formulas for making cements, methods of cleaning and silvering optical surfaces, instructions for concocting a glass-grinding fluid, and tips on how to protect the labels on bottles.
Updates appeared annually except during World Wars I and II. By the 1960s the company was publishing specialist handbooks on a number of subjects, and in 1972 the books began to be sold under the CRC Press imprint. The following year the company sold off its laboratory-supply business, and in 1978 CRC Press moved from Ohio to Florida, taking up permanent quarters in Boca Raton a year later. Even today though, three decades after losing its connection with gaskets and stoppers, the CRC Handbook is still widely known as the Rubber Handbook or Rubber Bible.
The handbook has had five editors. All but the current one—David R. Lide, formerly of the National Bureau of Standards, who took over in 1989—were from Case. Under Lide’s watch, 80 percent of the material in the handbook has been updated or replaced, which still leaves more than 500 pages devoted to material of long standing. A moderately good eye can discern tables prepared at different periods in the handbook’s history.
“Choosing new data is the most difficult part of the job,” Lide says. “We are constrained to 2,500 pages; the printed handbook can’t get any bigger. If a table seems to be of limited interest, I remove it to accommodate new data. Generally a few protests follow.” As the handbook shifts more of its content online, this should cease to be a problem.
A letter to the publisher from the Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, written two years before his death in 1994, shows how theory can spring from the most practical of sources: “I remember clearly the five summers, beginning in 1919, when I worked as a paving-plant inspector, supervising the laying of bituminous pavement in the mountainous region of southern Oregon… . For much of the time I was free to read, [and] … the book that I read over and over again was the Rubber Handbook. I puzzled over the tables of properties—hardness, color, melting and boiling point, density, magnetic properties, and others—trying to think of reasonable explanations of the empirical data. Only in the 1920s and 1930s did I have some success in this effort.”
Even today some users still enjoy flipping through the CRC Handbook and browsing the tables, like a baseball fan with a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia . The analogy is apt, because there is something inherently American about the Rubber Bible. In the early twentieth century, making a student’s life easier was almost entirely an American concept, as opposed to the Old World notion of sink or swim. In this sense the CRC Handbook was not just a book but an invention, one whose democratizing impact makes it the Model T of its field.