The Secret of Rubber – Vulcanization
We hardly ever think about it, but rubber makes our world a better place.
That’s what it was intended to do by the man who first made it usable for us, Charles Goodyear. The ancient Meso-Americans used rubber effectively, and their descendants were still using it when the Spanish arrived in their world. They cured rubber by mixing it with the sap of morning glory vines and curing it on smoky fires. They used it for balls, shoes, and to make lashings to tie stone axes to their handles. The shoes cushioned their feet for walking, and made it easier and more comfortable for them to travel over rough terrain. Their curing process was primitive, and was apparently lost over time.
So it was that for Europeans and Americans traveling to rubber producing areas in the early 1800,s rubber was considered most useful as a cheap ballast to balance their valuable cargo, and was dumped on arrival. A lot of raw rubber ended up abandoned on the shores of Boston Harbor and other ports. It was sticky, and temperature sensitive, so that most of it’s useful properties had serious drawbacks. Charles Goodyear however became fascinated with this material, and spent his life trying to find a way to process and use it. He went broke, and went to debtors prison before he even started working on rubber. His family suffered much in his quest to find the secrets of rubber. He was very religious, a Puritan, and he said that if he could discover what he was seeking he would greatly improve the lives of generations to come.
He finally found a way to cure rubber when he accidentally dropped some of a chemical concoction he was working on onto a hot stovetop. He shared his secret for almost nothing, and many men made fortunes, but Goodyear died a poor man. So when the tires of your car or bicycle absorb the bumps in the road and make your life that much more comfortable, think of Charles Goodyear and his wife and children living a humble paupers life, while he sought ceaselessly for the secret of vulcanization. He discovered the secret in 1839, and died in 1860 still a poor man, but he had fulfilled his destiny and given the world useful rubber.
However, nothing is without a price, after vulcanization greatly increased global demand for rubber King Leopold II of Belgium cruelly exploited the people of the Congo in order to supply raw rubber to the world market. That supply eventually dried up since Congo rubber is actually a vine extracted by the natives by rubbing the sap on their bodies and allowing it to harden. When they pull it off hair is removed as in a hot wax treatment, which can be very painful. But that was the least of the worries for the natives of the Congo who were often killed or mutilated if they should fail to meet their rubber quota. Somewhat less cruel were the rubber plantations of Indonesia which grew rubber trees. Natural rubber is still a major export of that region.
Before long John Dunlop devised rubber tires with tubes inside them filled with air.