goodyear worked on his rubber invention in debtor's prison -- 11/27/18

Today's selection -- from 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. One of the indispensable ingredients of the Industrial Revolution was rubber, made commercially practical by bankrupt businessman Charles Goodyear:

"The epicenter of what became known as 'rubber fever' was Salem, Massachusetts, north of Boston. In 1825 a young Salem entrepreneur imported five hundred pairs of rubber shoes from Brazil. Ten years later, the number of imported shoes had grown to more than 400,000, about one for every forty Americans. Vil­lagers in tiny hamlets at the mouth of the Amazon molded thou­sands of shoes to the dictates of Boston merchants. Garments impregnated with rubber were modem, high-tech, exciting-a perfect urban accessory. People flocked to stores.

"The crash was inevitable. The idea of impermeable rubber boots and clothes was more exciting than the fact. Rubber simply didn't work very well. In cold weather, the shoes became brittle; in hot weather, they melted. ...

"Just before the collapse, in 1833, a bankrupt businessman named Charles Goodyear became interested in -- and obsessed by -- rubber. It was typical of Goodyear's entrepreneurial acu­men that he began to seek financial backing for a rubber venture just at the time investors were planning their exits from the field. A few weeks after Goodyear announced his intent to produce temperature -- stable rubber he was thrown into debtor's prison. In his cell he began work, mashing bits of rubber with a roll­ing pin. He was untroubled by any knowledge of chemistry but boundlessly determined. For years Goodyear wandered about the northeastern United States in a cloud of penury, trailed by his hungry wife and children, dodging bailiffs and pawning heir­looms. All the while he was mixing toxic chemicals, more or less randomly, in the hope that they would make rubber more stable. The Goodyears lived in an abandoned rubber factory in Staten Island. They lived in an abandoned rubber factory in Massachu­setts. They lived in a shack in a Connecticut neighborhood called Sodom Hill (the name indicated its wholesomeness). They lived in a second abandoned rubber factory in Massachusetts. Some­times the houses had no heat or food. Two of Goodyear's chil­dren died.

"Taking his cue from a dream told to him by another rubber obsessive, Goodyear began mixing rubber with sulfur. Nothing happened, he said later, until he accidentally dropped a lump of sulfur-treated rubber onto a wood stove. To his amazement, the rubber didn't melt. The surface charred, but the inner material changed into a new kind of rubber that retained its shape and elasticity at high temperatures. Goodyear threw himself into reproducing the accident, a task impeded by his inability to afford any laboratory apparatus -- he had to traipse from neighbor to neighbor, asking to use their wood stoves. Sometimes the sul­fur process worked, sometimes it didn't. Goodyear kept work­ing, frustrated, hungry, haunted. When he was again thrown into debtor's prison, he wrote to acquaintances from his cell, asking for supplies 'to establish an India rubber factory for myself on the spot.' Eventually he borrowed money and paid the debt. A month later he was in another jail.

Hevea brasiliensis or, most commonly, the rubber tree or rubber plant

"Along the way he befriended a young Englishman. Goodyear gave him a few of his successful samples and asked him to seek investors in Britain. By a circuitous path two thin, inch-and-a-half-long strips of Goodyear's processed rubber ended up in the fall of 1842 at the laboratory of Thomas Hancock, a Manchester engineer who had developed processes for manipu­lating rubber. Hancock had no idea where these bits of rubber had originated. But he quickly realized that they didn't melt in hot weather or become stiff in cold weather. The question was whether he could duplicate the accomplishment. It is unclear how much he was able to learn from Goodyear's samples. Later he claimed to have 'made no analysis of these little bits' from the other man -- a remarkable demonstration of incuriosity, if true. In any case Hancock was more organized and knowledge­able than Goodyear and had better equipment. For a year and a half he systematically performed hundreds of small experiments. Eventually he, too, learned that immersing rubber in melted sul­fur would transform it into something that would stay stretchy in cold weather and solid in hot weather. Later he called the process 'vulcanization,' after the Roman god of fire. The British govern­ment granted Hancock a patent on May 21, 1844.

"Three weeks later, the U.S. government awarded Good­year his vulcanization patent. A glance at the patent shows that Goodyear never fully understood the process: a key ingredient, he claimed, was white lead, a metal-based pigment whose effect on rubber's stability is 'secondary, if anything,' according to E. Bryan Coughlin, of the Silvio O. Conte National Center for Polymer Research at the University of Massachusetts. 'I'm not sure, because it's not a standard treatment -- maybe it has some catalytic effect.' By contrast, Coughlin told me, Hancock's patent was 'pretty straightforward.' Hancock stirred softened rubber into sulfur heated to 240°-250° F, just above its melting point. The longer he subjected it to heat, the more elasticity it lost. 'That's pretty much what I teach my students,' Coughlin said.

"Goodyear didn't understand the recipe for vulcanization, but he did understand that at last he had a business opportunity. Show­ing a previously unsuspected knack for publicity stunts, he spent $30,000 he did not have to create an entire room made of rubber for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, the first world's fair. Four years later he borrowed $50,000 more to display an even more lavish rubber room at the second world's fair, the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Parisians lost their urban hauteur and gawped like rubes at Goodyear's rubber vanity table, complete with rubber-framed mirror; arranged on the top was a battalion of rubber combs and rubber-handled brushes. In the center of the rubber floor was a hard rubber desk with a rubber inkwell and rubber pens. Rubber umbrellas stood at attention in a rubber umbrella-stand in the comer of two rubber walls, each decorated with paintings on rubber canvases. For weapons fans, there was a stand of knives in rubber sheaths, swords in rubber scabbards, and rifles with rubber stocks. Except for the unpleas­ant rubber smell, Goodyear's exhibit was a triumph. 'Napo­leon Ill invested him with the Legion of Honor,' wrote the dip­lomat and historian Austin Coates, 'and a Paris court sent him to prison for debt.' He received the medal in his cell. Goodyear was forced to sell some of his wife's possessions to pay for their trip home. He died four years later, still awash in debt.

"Afterward, Americans lionized Goodyear as a visionary. Books extolled him to children as an exemplar of the can-do spirit; a major tire company named itself after him. Meanwhile, Coates noted, 'Hancock received English treatment: due respect while living, fading notice when dead, and on some suitable centenary thereafter, a postage stamp.'

"Neither Goodyear nor Hancock had any idea why sulfur stabilized rubber -- or why, for that matter, unadulterated rub­ber bounced and stretched."



Charles C. Mann


1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created


First Vintage Books


Copyright 2011 by Charles C. Mann


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