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Last Updated January 16, 2023
You’ve used rubber, right? Of course, you have! We’ve all encountered rubber at least once in our lives. If you look anywhere nowadays, within a matter of seconds, you will be able to notice something with rubber in its core. It could be the tires on vehicles, balloons from a street vendor, erasers used by children, latex mattress or the latex topper you are sleeping on, or even the grip on the pen you carry!
Since its inauguration into humanity's path of progress, rubber has been a material of profound significance. Thus, it would be ignorant of us not to learn about its history and origin.
What is natural rubber? Who discovered it? Where did it originate, and how did we shape it for our use? Here’s how rubber became the global sensation that it is today.
Before we delve into the history of rubber, we must first educate ourselves on what it is. Natural rubber, as the name suggests, derives from nature. It comes from within the saps of rubber trees.
This species of rubber tree was born in the South Americas and refined in the plantations in Southeast Asia and Western Africa. It replaced the previous inferior source of rubber - The India rubber plant, somewhere around the 20th century.
Rubber is harvested from the tree in the form of latex. Latex is a white, milky colloid that is sticky in texture.
The process of ‘tapping’ implements here, wherein an incision of a one-quarter inch (6.4 mm) cuts into the bark, and the fluid latex collects into a vessel. Two sides of a tree are tapped, and when executed properly, it will produce latex for up to five hours before coagulating and healing the cuts.
While this might seem like something that damages nature, it doesn’t affect it a great deal, as the trees do not need to be cut down to produce rubber. ‘Rubber tapping’ is the safest and most convenient method of harvesting natural rubber.
After the latex collects, it coagulates to form clumps in the collection vessel itself. If this isn’t the intended outcome, then ammonia is introduced to prevent solidification.
It is later sent off to be processed into the refined natural rubber that we now use. Some of these processes include Calendering, Extrusion, and Vulcanisation.
Throughout today, natural rubber is used in a variety of forms. Either by application as adhesives and cement or as products like latex mattresses, latex toppers, latex pillows, gloves, and footwear. It has consumed the world of consumers and has played a pivotal role in the rise of the modern age.
Around 1600 BC, we uncovered that a native civilization in Mesoamerica - The Olmecs, were the first to stumble upon and use rubber.
A ball, weighing around 9 lbs, was crafted out of rubber to be used in the ‘Mesoamerican ballgame’. The proper rules of this game are still unfamiliar to date but are said to be similar to that of racquetball. Although here, the popular theory is that hips were used to strike the ball instead of a racquet.
This ballgame has been associated with important ritualistic aspects for the Olmecs. While early instances recall it being played for recreation, later instances have seen the involvement of human sacrifices for religious and competitive purposes.
Other civilizations of this period, such as the Aztecs and the Mayans, used rubber to make containers and to waterproof textiles by infusing them with latex sap.
The significance of rubber was shaped at three distinct points in time. The Pre-WW1 era saw the profitability aspect of rubber production. WW1 and WW2 saw it as a need for strategic gain. And the Post-WW2 era would carry the after-effects of the prior periods, turning rubber into the global asset it is today.
By 1912, the world had been introduced to rubber. But when this process of introduction began over 4 decades ago, in 1879, the devil himself descended upon the Amazon forest to oversee it.
Rubber was in high demand at the time, especially with Charles Goodyear developing ‘vulcanization’.
With many more promised inventions to come after the mass-produced motor cars from Henry Ford and tires from John Dunlop in 1888, profits were there to be made off of the inflated need of the deprived market.
So after lying dormant for over decades upon decades, the rubber trees within the premises of the Amazon basin would finally see work being put upon them. But who were the workers?
Well, they would be the very people of the land. The indigenous Indian tribes who had lived there for their entire lives were now shackled and enslaved by the men that did the devil's bidding.
One such man went by the name of Julio Cesar Arana. A Peruvian trader who had been enticed by the ‘rubber rush’, he would arrive on the scene with his brother and claim the land around the river Putumayo.
From thereon, his exploits would begin. The natives would be captured in hordes, and under the reign of terror from the hardened overseers, they were slaved away for the production of rubber.
Arana would make millions off of this practice. All the while, the indigenous people would suffer horrifying treatment from him and his peers. They were constantly put to work without rest, flogged and embarrassed, shot for amusement, and robbed of their families (who would also suffer similar or worse fates).
Walter Hardenburg, a young engineer from America who’d witnessed these atrocities when in the Amazon, released his accounts to the oblivious world in 1909. Shortly after, the British government would step in due to Britain’s involvement with Arana and his company.
An investigation was launched in 1910, after which necessary action was taken against the British citizens that funded Arana’s venture. But he would escape the consequences of his crimes and go on to become a senator in Peru, ultimately meeting his demise at the ripe old age of 88, without a penny to his name.
By the end of this period of the ‘Rubber boom’, the natives were left with dire consequences to face. While the other empires similar to Arana’s crumbled due to rubber production expanding outside the Amazon, many of the Indian tribes had either been completely wiped out or were facing the possibility of extinction soon.
WW1 ensued in 1914, and rubber had been enlisted into the war too. Vehicles used to transport troops and equipment had become a pivotal part of the strategy, and rubber was needed to produce tires for them. The US tire industries were far superior to the Germans, helping them gain an upper hand during the war
Besides this, when the Germans polluted the battleground with toxic gasses, the Allies were forced to either retreat or wear gas masks. Since rubber is a gas-tight material, they were used as the base material for these masks. This is where the scarcity of rubber was beginning to be felt.
The Germans had already plunged into the world of synthetic rubber by the turn of the century. Although it proved futile in WW1, by the time the second one arrived, they were prepared for any shortages in their natural rubber reserves.
The US, though, was unprepared when they faced shortages in their rubber department. The second war caused a 90% cut-off in their supply, thus, a synthetic substitute for rubber became the need of the hour.
Fearing an impending loss to the Germans, the US government paired up with rubber companies, the petrochemicals industry, and university research labs to push for synthetic rubber production.
In 1941, the total annual output of synthetic rubber was 231 tons in the US. By 1945, the monthly output for synthetic rubber rose to the high figure of around 70,000 tons!
Before WW1, and even before the Amazon rubber boom truly began, a man named Henry Wickham smuggled around 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Brazil. Only a very few of these would survive in the end, but the ones that did were fostered in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.
In Singapore and Malaysia, Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley passionately promoted and nurtured these rubber seeds. His persistence would earn him the nickname “Mad Ridley”.
Ridley is credited massively for the propagation of the rubber industry across the Malay peninsula (which would go on to become one of the largest exporters of rubber in the world). He is also responsible for discovering the rubber tapping technique that preserves the tree over cutting it down.
Additionally, the effects of the US synthetic rubber program would remain persistent after the war. Almost 70 percent of the world’s rubber is synthetically manufactured today.
We’ve learned of the roles that rubber has played in our past, but a question remains unanswered - Why rubber? Why not something else?
The answer lies in its properties. Take any material that is used to produce items. Unless the properties of the material match what the item represents, it is discarded for an alternative that does.
Processed rubber has some excellent qualities that make it ideal for application in various scenarios. Thus, rubber is perfect for the items made out of it. Properties of rubber include: -
Resilience is the ability to be able to bounce back after being under duress. Rubber is resilient to a good amount of stress applied to it and will regain its shape and size shortly after. This property is great for dynamic seals, which are components used in creating a barrier between moving and stationary surfaces.
Tear resistance refers to the measure of how well a material can withstand the effects of tearing. Rubber can hold out against a considerable amount of pressure applied to it without tearing, making it an ideal object when dealing with rough edges and sharp objects.
Tensile strength is the necessary force required to break apart a material. Measured in either pound per square inch (psi) or megapascals, technical buyers and part designers must take good notice of this aspect as it indicates the point of failure in a stretched piece of rubber.
Rubber is a member of the category of materials called ‘elastomers’. These materials possess weak intermolecular forces within them, allowing them the flexibility to stretch to a long degree and to be deformed into many shapes without the consequence of it staying that way.
This opened up a door to infinite possibilities, as only a very limited amount of materials in the world had this property. Rubber can be extended up to a factor of 10 from its original length, and will default back once released.
Fun fact: Steel is more elastic than rubber!
Abrasion is the wearing of materials, mostly due to friction against a rough surface. Resistance against abrasion is secured within the texture of rubber, making it a material frequently used in industrial machinery such as conveyor belts.
The Mayans are said to have dipped their feet in latex to make custom-fitted waterproof shoes. They would peel the dried latex off their feet after dipping and then smoke them to harden into shoes. Liquid rubber is still used in waterproofing many items.
While it is common knowledge that rubber melts in high temperatures and freezes at low temperatures, you’d be surprised to know that natural rubber can hold out up to temperatures between -67° F to +180° F (-55° C to +82° C).
However, synthetic rubbers are engineered to resist much more excessive temperature ranges, with Silicone being able to survive between -148° F to +600° F (-100° C to +315° C)!
Even though rubber has a weak set of intermolecular forces, it doesn’t melt away like we’d suppose it would. Instead, it can be a very hard substance when we need it to be. Vulcanization is used to induce this property of hardening.
Pairing this with elasticity and the rest of the properties mentioned above, it is no wonder that rubber was fervently sought out by traders and manufacturers.
The year was 1839 when a man named Charles Goodyear walked out of the US Patent Office with the patent number 1090. The patent in question would be the partially completed process of ‘Vulcanization’.
Five years later, on June 15th of 1844, the man would bring the patent to completion and earn patent number 3633 for his invention. Little would the world of rubber know that its fortunes would be changed forever after this.
You see, unprocessed rubber, although a haven of opportunity, had numerous faults attributed to it. The major flaw that irritated the populace was that it would melt and form goo in the summer, while during winter, it would become brittle and crack.
Around the mid-19th century, the rubber industry was running on fumes. A crumbling was on the horizon if something couldn’t be done to diminish this fatal flaw. And Goodyear, by this time, was having a tumultuous life, to say the least.
He had been through two failed business ventures, a prison spell, and one failed attempt at vulcanizing rubber. He was also knee-deep in debt to various creditors at the time.
Goodyear, though, was not a man to be discouraged so easily, for he would proceed to sell off his furniture and move his family to a boarding house so that he could continue experimenting. From 1834 to 1839, he would travel to multiple depths of obsession in trying to find a cure for what ailed rubber.
Cramped makeshift laboratories, exposure to the harsh chemicals, and seeking charity to afford a living would’ve been a fatal sequence of occurrences for any other man. To Charles Goodyear, it was just another day in his life.
After another failed attempt at vulcanization, and with the panic of 1837 causing further setbacks, Goodyear was beginning to see a shift in his misfortune.
Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, or maybe it was the pity of a higher being, but in 1839 he would accidentally discover that the combination of rubber and sulfur over a hot stove caused the rubber to become rigid.
Further increasing the temperature, to his surprise, hardened the rubber instead of melting it. He named the process ‘Vulcanization’, after the Roman god of fire - Vulcan, and by 1844 he would bring it to perfection.
To say that Vulcanization was a lifeline to rubber would be an underestimation of massive proportions. It single-handedly propagated rubber into the modern world and resuscitated a dying industry into a thriving multi-billion-dollar commercial trade.
Charles Goodyear, aged 59, would meet with death on July 1st of 1860. He wouldn’t see a penny from his patent, for countless lawsuits would be filed against him after his international acclaim. He would leave the world just as he lived in it, covered in an ocean of debt.
Goodyear's tale is a tragic one of sorts. Some would call him a madman for what he did, and understandably so, while others would see him as a pioneer, unfazed by worldly obstacles. In the end, his obsession led to a greater good, and that shouldn’t be left to go without meaning.
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Considering all that rubber has brought to the world, it is evident that it has been everywhere. Rubber has influenced everything it has touched. All of us would be down to half of what we own without its existence. A material that we often take for granted is the very thing upon which we’ve placed our crutches of progress.
It could also be argued that rubber caused suffering for many of our ancestors. But it is only a material, a non-living entity. Our suffering stems from our own greed.
Disclaimer: What is said in this article has been referenced from multiple sources and is intended only for educational and informational purposes. Please note that no content in this article is a substitute for professional advice from a qualified doctor or healthcare provider. Always consult an experienced doctor with any concerns you may have regarding a health condition or treatment, and never disregard any medical suggestions or delay in seeking treatment because of something you read here.