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Unexpected Roots: The Distant History of Rubber Products

Rubber Rollers

Today, rubber is as flexible in its use and applications as it is in its composition. From the familiar vulcanized rubber of vehicle tires and floating rubber duckies to unique custom molded rubber products and urethane casts we at Mark Tool produce to fit individual specifications and designs for a variety of industrial uses, rubber is an essential component of modern society.

But there’s a surprising history of rubber products. Although Goodyear gets the credit for vulcanizing rubber in the mid-19th century (more about this in our next blog), advanced rubber products have been around for centuries.

An article by David Chandler of MIT notes that the Spanish explorers of 15th century Europe were particularly fascinated with the stretchy bouncy balls of rubber they discovered in their interactions with pre-Columbian natives. Not only did early Mesoamericans cushion with feet with soft rubber soles, the article reports that the Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mayans “were adept at making rubber” to the point that they produced 16,000 rubber balls per year, some of them as wide as beach balls. For an industry that was entirely handmade by craftsmen, the figure is impressive.

However, the Spaniards merely recorded their observations and returned to Europe. It wasn’t until 1736, when the French explorer Mr. Charles Marie de la Condamine discovered the liquid in the New World, produced from what would later become the “rubber tree” that it took piqued the interest of the European market. Condamine noted that it coagulated and “produced a malleable substance of unique elasticity and impermeability.” Barbara Weinstein’s book, The Amazon Rubber Boom, explains that the natives of the Amazon were already using the material to make syringes, boots, bottles, and toys.

Fascinated by the new material and it’s unique properties, the English began producing erasers with it and in 1770 Joseph Priestly gave it the name we still use today, “rubber.” According to latexworkshops.com the name is derived from the fact that erases “rubbed” pencil marks off paper and were literally “rubbers.” Other inventors and scientists experimented with rubber and “by the early nineteenth century, rubber syringes and galoshes were not uncommon in Europe.” Between 1827 and 1830 Europe was swept by rubber fever and, Weinstein reports, Amazon exports of the product grew from 31 to 156 metric tons.

Still, despite its rapid spread across Europe, the rubber craze lulled as customers discovered that the substance was unstable: the heat melted it and the cold hardened it. It wasn’t until Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process that modern applications of the product took root. Today, rubber is a stable material used in a variety of industries from household items to parts for machines. Modern scientists and innovators process both organic and synthetic rubber with machinery and perfected molding processes to create durable products to meet marketplace demands.

See our next blog to learn more about the history of rubber products and how the rubber industry evolved during the 19th century.

Mark Tool & Rubber is a leader in splash zone protection and a leading manufacturer of custom molded rubber products for several oilfield and marine applications. Specialty products include rubber rollers, polyurethane rollers, and pipe spacers. Their state-of-the-art manufacturing facility can handle every job, no matter how big or small.

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