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Between 1760 and 1940 rubber was converted from a trivial curiosity into a major international industry. It has become central to modern living and crucial to the waging of war. This transformation was not the result of a single breakthrough or even efforts in one country, but was the outcome of a gradual accumulation of technical advances and commercial developments across the world.
Rubber latex, obtained by cutting the bark of certain trees, was used in Central and South America for some fifteen centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It was made into balls and rubber shoes. Although Columbus and subsequent explorers saw these rubber balls, they did not see this strange material as having any significance. The French scientist Charles de la Condamine, who came across rubber during an expedition to Peru in the 1730s, was the first to suggest the potential uses of rubber such as waterproofed cloth. He called it caoutchouc (from the native name cahuchu, meaning “weeping wood”). Francois Fresneau, a French engineer who had lived in Cayenne, French Guiana, also promoted the use of rubber and discovered the value of turpentine as a solvent for rubber in 1763. The first important use of rubber (dating from 1769) was the removal of pencil marks. Rubber-coated cloth was crucial to the development of balloons in the 1780s and 1790s, and suspenders were being made by 1803. There were two important breakthroughs in the 1820s. The English businessman Thomas Hancock invented the masticator, which allowed better processing of rubber, in 1820, and he continued to revolutionize the industry for over two decades. Meanwhile the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh replaced Fresneau’s turpentine with a hydrocarbon solvent obtained from coal tar in 1823 and used the rubber solution as glue between two layers of cloth. This waterproof material produced a superior raincoat that soon became known as a mackintosh. In 1834, Hancock and Macintosh joined forces to form Charles Macintosh & Co. in Manchester; it became the leading rubber company in the world.
The Vulcanization of Rubber
Despite the efforts of Hancock and Macintosh, rubber was still a problematic material in the 1830s. In cold weather rubber (and rubberized cloth) became rigid, and in very hot weather it was sticky and could even melt. The American inventor Charles Goodyear (1800–1860) found the answer to these problems in 1839. He heated rubber with sulfur and white lead (which accelerated the reaction) to produce a harder material which could withstand changes in temperature. The process, which Goodyear called vulcanization, after the Roman god of fire, was then copied by Hancock, who improved the procedure. The extent to which Goodyear was indebted to the earlier work of Nathaniel Hayward and the morality of Hancock’s conduct remain controversial even today. However it came about, vulcanization laid the basis of the modern rubber industry. At first the uses of vulcanized rubber were relatively mundane, such as boots, overshoes, and air beds. Ebonite, a hard material produced by prolonged vulcanization of rubber, was important as an early plastic, used to make boxes and jewelry.
Rubber became an important material only after the development of the pneumatic tire by the Scottish veterinary surgeon John Dunlop in 1888. Dunlop reintroduced the pneumatic tire (it had originally been patented by the Scottish engineer Robert William Thomson in 1846) with the bicycle in mind. In 1895, Edouard and Andre Michelin took the important step of adapting their bicycle tire to the automobile, thereby establishing the major use of rubber in modern society. Nearly all of the leading rubber companies were founded in this period, including B. F. Goodrich (1880), Dunlop (1889), Michelin (1889), U.S. Rubber, formed by a merger of older firms and later renamed Uniroyal (1892), Goodyear, which had no connection with Charles Goodyear (1898), and Firestone (1900). By 1910, Akron, Ohio, had become the center of the American tire industry.
Rubber in the Far East
When the Michelin brothers invented the automobile tire, the sole source of rubber was tapping of wild trees in the Amazon River basin. The increased demand for rubber for bicycle tires was an economic bonanza for the Amazonian rubber traders, symbolized by the lavish opera house at Manaus, Brazil, built in 1896. It was, and remains, impossible to establish rubber plantations in the Amazon basin because of the leaf blight that attacks rubber trees there if they are grown close together, yet the harvesting of rubber from wild trees alone was clearly unsustainable. The solution was the development of plantations in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The British government had established plantations in Ceylon in the late 1870s by buying seeds in Brazil (the popular myth that they were smuggled out is incorrect), but the real breakthrough was the planting of rubber trees in Malaya in the late 1890s, following a fall in the price of the leading cash crop, coffee.
The industrial synthesis of this important natural material was a bold undertaking and took many years to attain success. The first synthetic rubber was made by the English chemist William Tilden in 1882, but it was not economical since it was made from turpentine, which was both expensive and relatively scarce. When rubber prices were high in 1910, attempts to produce synthetic rubber were pursued in England, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The most successful was Bayer’s “methyl rubber,” made from acetone, which was used by Germany as a rubber substitute during World War I. Interest in synthetic rubber revived in 1925, as the result of an attempt by the British government to restrict exports from Malaya and Ceylon, and synthetic rubber production was started in the Soviet Union, Germany, and the United States in the 1930s. The Soviet industry made a weak synthetic rubber (polybutadiene) from ethyl alcohol and set up the first synthetic rubber factories at Yaroslavl’ and Voronezh in 1932. By 1940 production had reached 40,000 to 50,000 tons. The German firm I.G. Farben (formed by a merger of Bayer with BASF and Hoechst in 1925) developed a new class of synthetic rubber called copolymers, one of which turned out to be suitable for tires, while another was oil-resistant and was used for gaskets and gasoline hoses. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they were keen to use these synthetics as a substitute for natural rubber. Within ten years, I.G. Farben had erected three factories and Germany was producing thousands of tons of synthetic rubber. After the war ended, information from the German plants (and deported chemists in the case of the Soviets) assisted the technical development of the American and Soviet industries.
Initial attempts to create an American industry faltered, but progress was rapid when America was cut off from the Far Eastern plantations after Pearl Harbor. Most of the U.S.-produced synthetic rubber, manufactured under government control and called GR-S (Government Rubber–Styrene), was petroleumbased, but some of it was made from maize-based ethyl alcohol to appease the vociferous farm lobby. The decision to keep most of the plants open after World War II was vindicated by the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, which was preceded by a rapid increase in the price of natural rubber. The technical improvements introduced during this period, polymerization at lower temperatures and addition of mineral oil, made GR-S competitive with natural rubber. As a result, the industry was privatized by Congress between 1953 and 1955.
The Modern Rubber Industry
West Germany adopted the American petroleumbased technology for synthetic rubber in the early 1950s. Over the next decade, synthetic rubber factories were established in Britain, Italy, France, Japan, and even Brazil, the original home of natural rubber. Synthetic rubber overtook natural rubber around 1960. The American synthetic rubber industry maintained its leading position, despite growing competition from Japan. In tire manufacture, however, the Americans had failed to realize the importance of the radial tire, which had been introduced by Michelin in 1949.
The oil crisis of 1973 had a severe impact on the American industry. Its synthetic rubber production was hit by the quadrupling of the price of its raw material, oil. Radial tires (which can only be made from natural rubber) reduced fuel consumption of automobiles and sales soared in the 1970s, but then Firestone’s radial tires were shown to be unsafe and had to be recalled. In the 1980s, all the plants in Akron were closed, Goodrich and Uniroyal merged their tire businesses and then sold the joint operation to Michelin, and Firestone was taken over by the Japanese firm Bridgestone. Since the oil crises of the 1970s, natural and synthetic rubbers have settled into an uneasy but enduring co-existence. It now appears unlikely either form will disappear completely. Whatever form it takes, rubber will continue to be important as long as we use automobiles, take flights, or just walk along the road.
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