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Charles Goodyear discovered and exploited the potential of vulcanised rubber

Posted in America, Discoveries, Historical articles, History on Friday, 3 January 2014

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This edited article about rubber first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 502 published on 28 August 1971.

Charles Goodyear, picture, image, illustration

Charles Goodyear discovers a process for hardening rubber using his domestic stove

The prison guard could hardly believe his ears when he heard Charles Goodyear’s singular request. Sitting on his cell bed Goodyear said calmly: “I would like a large piece of rubber, some chemicals, a marble slab, and a wooden rolling-pin. Oh, and if you can get hold of any magnesium I would appreciate that too!”

The guard reported the request to the Governor of the Boston, Massachusetts, prison. “I think the fellow must be a little crazy,” said the guard indignantly. “There he is, imprisoned for debt, and wanting to send out for expensive chemicals. He says he wants to turn his cell into a laboratory!”

But to the guard’s amazement, the Governor decided to grant Goodyear’s request. He knew that chemistry was the prisoner’s sole means of livelihood, and that the young inventor was trying to find a way of preventing rubber goods such as coats and shoes from melting in the heat of summer. Besides, once Goodyear had completed his experiments he might become a rich man, and be able to pay off his outstanding debts.

So Goodyear’s wife was allowed to bring her husband the items he needed. For the rest of his short sentence the inventor strived in his cell to make rubber a hardier and more practical material. Despite its one great weakness, he had long been fascinated by rubber and believed that one day it would prove to be of immense use to mankind.

Goodyear, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1800, was the son of another “crazy inventor.” His father was prepared to experiment with anything from bootlaces to bottles in an attempt to improve their quality. And the more he failed the more eager he became to try something “which might work this time.”

To begin with Charles was indifferent to his father’s passion for inventing. He wanted to become a clergyman, but when he was sixteen he was forced to help out in Mr Goodyear’s hardware factory. Gradually the youngster grew more interested in his father’s unconventional products, and he tried as hard as he could to sell them.

In 1826 Charles opened his own hardware shop in New Haven, and aided by his wife Clarissa he made a comfortable income. By now, however, he had been bitten by what he called “the inventing bug.” He put his money into a new process of manufacturing iron. The process was not a success, and at the age of thirty he was, for the first time in his life, put in prison for debt.

Apart from his wife, Goodyear had a family of five children to support, and the cruelty of his imprisonment was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. Unable to earn any money while in gaol, he was immediately set upon by his creditors on his release. This drove him from town to town, but the end result was always the same – his debts caught up with him and back to prison he went.

The turning point in his life of hardship and frustration came one day in 1834 as he was despondently trailing through the streets of Boston. He noticed a rubber life-jacket in a shop window, and on examining it he thought that he could make the rubber tougher and more resilient.

It was then that people were finding out just how unreliable a substance rubber was. The shopkeepers and manufacturers lost millions of dollars as the summer sun wreaked its havoc, and this disaster spurred Goodyear into months of experiment and research.

To prevent rubber from melting in the warm weather, he tried mixing the substance with magnesium. This was the test which he carried out in his cell, and to a certain extent it worked. It was not a hundred per cent satisfactory, but a further experiment with nitric acid brought him closer to making rubber articles a thoroughly dependable buy.

“I was encouraged in my efforts,” he wrote later, “by the reflection that what is hidden and unknown, and cannot be discovered by scientific research, will most likely be discovered by accident, if at all, and by the man who applies himself most perseveringly to the subject . . . ”

Convinced that he would soon beat the problem, Goodyear sold his home and belongings and moved to New York. He took over an old, run-down mill some six miles from his boarding-house, and each day he walked to his “factory” carrying his precious chemicals in a large stone jar.

Soon he began to hire men and was producing rubber articles by the score. He even had letters telling of his work printed on rubber, and these he sent to various influential businessmen and politicians. He posted one such self-testimonial to Andrew Jackson, the President of the United States, and finally his efforts bore fruit.

After advertising his products by parading the streets of New York dressed in rubber from head to toe, he found a backer for his work. A new and larger factory was opened on Staten Island, and the workers there said that the only thing about Goodyear that was not made of rubber was his money. “And if he could get away with manufacturing rubber money he’d do that too!” one of his foremen asserted.

Then one morning in 1839 Goodyear fulfilled his earlier prediction – he stumbled across the “secret of rubber” purely by accident. It happened while he was on a visit to a rival manufacturer and he came across a piece of badly-charred rubber which had been discarded as useless.

“I was surprised,” he recorded, “to find that a specimen, being carelessly brought into contact with a hot stove, charred like leather. I directly inferred that if the charring process could be stopped at the right point, it might divest the compound of its stickiness.”

What had happened, in fact, was that the rubber had been vulcanized, or hardened, by being mixed with sulphur and then burnt by an extreme heat. At the time Goodyear’s factory had been closed down by yet another loss of faith in rubber, and he was forced to repeat the “mistake” in his wife’s kitchen.

He put a mixture of rubber and sulphur into the stove and waited anxiously while it burnt. His wife, overcome by the offensive smell, ran out of the room, and Goodyear was on his own when he opened the oven door.

“What I saw,” he said, “was a charred mess. It looked as if the rubber was of no use to anyone – but I knew that I had proved my point. Rubber could be hardened and all I had to do now was smooth it out – which I did by regulating the heat and the time which the process took.”

Even with this long-worked-for success, it took some years before vulcanized rubber sold itself to the public. Before his death in 1860, Charles Goodyear was honoured for his invention in both America and Europe. And today he is known throughout the world as the man who made rubber really useful.

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