In our previous blog, we reported on the surprising history of rubber. Its history stretches across countries and centuries as far back as the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans. From basic rubber balls to European galoshes, by the 1800s innovations with rubber had firmly taken root. Now, let's take a look at the modern evolution of rubber products.
Goodyear, a leader in the rubber tire market for over a century, owes its success to a happy accident during experimentation with rubber in the mid-1830s. According to Goodyear’s website, though a trendy new import from Brazil, waterproof rubber gum, inspired a string of factories to be built, it quickly lost the fascination of the public when it was discovered that it "froze bone-hard in winter and turned glue-like in summer. Not one of the young rubber companies survived as long as five years. Investors lost millions. Rubber, everyone agreed, was through in America.”
Charles Goodyear, determined to make the new material durable, performed a series of experiments and stumbled on two major breakthroughs. One was the application of nitric acid to the material which smoothed and dried it. The second led to the development of durable rubber products and a slew of modern applications still in use today: vulcanization.
In 1938, the Goodyear website explains, he dropped elastic on a stove by accident and it "charred like leather. And around the charred area was a dry, springy brown rim – ‘gum elastic.’” This new weatherproof rubber led to further experiments and eventually Goodyear refined the application of sulfur, white lead, heat, and pressure to rubber until he discovered a process to produce a long lasting and durable material without losing the natural flexibility of the substance.
Barbara Weinstein’s book, The Amazon Rubber Boom 1850-1920, notes that after the initial rubber fever of the early 1800s, as explained in our previous blog, "The market remained relatively calm until the bicycle craze of the 1890s and the popularization of the automobile after 1900.”
An article on the history of the bicycle tire explains the evolution from wood to metal and then through several different types of rubber. At first solid rubber tires were used but eventually the "pneumatic or the air-filled tire” was invented by a British engineer in 1840. After several other refinements the bicycle craze took root as deeply as the use of rubber had and Weinstein’s book on the rubber boom notes that it "proved to be a mere preview of things to come; it was the rise of the automobile that definitely transformed rubber manufacturing into a major component of the world’s most sophisticated industrial complex.” This was a major breakthrough in the modern evolution of rubber products.
As a brief overview of the history of tires in the automotive industry shows on about.com, the early years of the industry were centered on maximizing the effectiveness rubber. Innovations such as grooved tires for maximized traction, mountable rims to aid in the repair of flats, and pneumatic tires to reduce weight and drag exploded over the space of just a few years and gave birth to the automotive industry.
With two major industries, bicycles and automobiles, firmly rooted in the rubber industry the market stabilized and instead of a craze, rubber became a way of life.
A threat to the rubber industry loomed on the horizon though and a dependency on rubber imports limited the market. Although early research into synthesizing rubber began as early as the 1860s, it took a World War to inspire the innovation required to achieve synthetic rubbers.
The Encyclopedia of American Business History entry on rubber states that World War I and World War II "heightened concern in the United States about dependence upon imports of this crucial raw material, most of which came from Southeast Asia.”
According to the American Chemical Society, during World War II, Southwest Asia fulfilled these fears and supply of rubber to America ended. The ACS notes that this was the impetus for the U.S. to sponsor "a consortium of companies involved in rubber research and production [to unite] in a unique spirit of technical cooperation” and produce "a general purpose synthetic rubber, GR-S (Government Rubber-Styrene), on a commercial scale.”
With a real danger that the war might be lost without a healthy supply of rubber for boots, equipment, and tires this endeavor "expanded the U.S. synthetic rubber industry from an annual output of 231 tons of general purpose rubber in 1941 to an output of 70,000 tons a month in 1945.” According to the Texas State Historical Association, in Texas alone, "by 1950 production amounted to more than 50 percent of a United States total of between 4,000 and 5,000 long tons annually.”
Today, both natural rubber and synthesized rubbers are used in thousands of different applications across dozens of large industries.
"During the course of a single day, the average person may utilize a myriad of products that are made from rubber or include rubber components. Here is just a handful of examples from among many thousands: alarm clock, toothbrush, hairbrush, shoes, coffee maker, refrigerator, microwave, cell phone, computer.…Rubber parts, tools and components are essential to major industries including oil & gas, aerospace, farm equipment, trucking, railroads, food and beverage – the list goes on and on.”
Whether natural or synthesized, rubber is strong, flexible, durable, non-conductive, and the limitlessly customizable products derived from it, both large and small have firmly taken root in modern society. In fact, it is difficult to imagine our society without it.
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