In the early 1850s, Charles Goodyear had a vision of the future—a world filled with rubber products. He envisioned books with rubber pages, ships with rubber sails and workers sitting at rubber desks, as well as countless consumer goods that ultimately achieved commercial acceptance. Ironically, he never pictured his name on a set of tires, largely because he died decades before the automobile was invented. Nevertheless, most people naturally assume that Goodyear founded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which was actually conceived by Frank and Charles Seiberling in 1898 and named in the deceased inventors honor.
In the book “Noble Obsession” (Hyperion), author Charles Slack revisits the tragic life of Charles Goodyear (b. 1800), a man who literally devoted his entire existence to experimenting with and improving rubber. Today, few individuals give rubber a second thought, but much like the Internet in the late 1990s, it was perceived as a commodity destined to change the world. In the early 1830s, businessmen invested millions of dollars into this “miracle” substance and new companies sprang up virtually overnight to meet the expected demand for rubber goods. However, rubber had what Slack calls a fatal flaw. That is, it would melt in the heat and crack in the cold. The fledgling industry soon collapsed as consumers discovered that hot weather turned rubber-based products into putrid, unsightly lumps. In a few short years, rubber went from being yesterday’s miracle to an object of contempt.
Yet Goodyear was determined to fix rubber’s flaws and worked doggedly for the better part of a decade to find a reliable formula for what is now known as vulcanization—the process by which rubber is made impervious to heat and cold. He was willing to endure any sacrifice for the cause. His refusal to work a conventional day job to support his wife and children plunged the Goodyear family into abject poverty and repeatedly landed him in debtor’s prison. Undeterred by criticism from friends and relatives, he stubbornly continued on his quest, sometimes begging for food and pawning family possessions to finance his experiments.
After five years, Goodyear had little to show for his efforts except mounting frustration and a handful of initially promising breakthroughs that ultimately led nowhere. Then sometime in early 1839 one of Goodyear’s experimental mixtures of rubber, sulfur and white lead accidentally found its way onto a hot stove, and instead of melting, hardened to the consistency of tough leather, exactly the transformation he had been searching for. Although it would take him several more years to reproduce the formula—and a series of business mistakes cost him a large percentage of the fortune he should have earned from his invention—Goodyear had discovered the secret that would allow rubber to realize its vast potential.
Ironically, as a young man, Goodyear was either unaware of or uninterested in rubber. After marrying his first wife, Clarissa, the newlyweds settled down in Philadelphia, where they opened a conventional hardware store. The shop thrived for five years but after it began to lose money in 1830, Goodyear was jailed—the first of many stints in debtor’s prison—and forced to begin considering a new occupation.
In 1834, Goodyear finally found his calling. After purchasing a life preserver at a rubber goods outlet he promptly went home and invented an improved valve for the preserver. When he returned to the store to show off his handiwork, the manager was impressed but unmoved. “He took Goodyear to the back where there were piles and piles of these rank, foul-smelling blobs that had been life preservers,” recounts Slack. “He told Goodyear, 'The rubber industry is dying. When it gets hot these things melt and if anybody really wanted to make his mark as an inventor he should find a way to prevent this from happening.’”
Although rubber’s molecular structure wouldn't be identified until many years later, science has since demonstrated that the very properties that make rubber elastic and moldable were also its great downfall. “Rubber is comprised of macro-molecules,” explains Slack, “which by molecular standards are these huge, long snakes of molecules that intertwine. When you add heat they relax their grip around each other and the stuff begins to run.”
By the time Goodyear left Philadelphia for Connecticut in 1836 he was obsessed with rubber—cutting it up, heating it and mixing it with assorted chemicals in an effort to make it smoother and more resistant to extremes in temperature. Family members and friends implored him to seek gainful employment, while neighbors complained about the burning rubber smell emanating from the Goodyear household. Clarissa put up more with indiscretions than anyone as Goodyear often appropriated her oven, pots and kitchen utensils to whip up his experimental mixtures. “Clarissa was by all descriptions an incredibly patient and supportive woman,” notes Slack. “In some ways her suffering was worse because she didn't have his obsession with rubber to keep her going.”
It’s also likely that the family's collective health was negatively impacted by Goodyear's insistence on working with dangerous chemicals within the confined space of their living quarters. Goodyear—who was sickly for most of his adult life—ultimately fathered 12 children with two wives, yet he saw seven of them die before he passed away in 1860. “That wasn’t all that unusual in that day and age,” reminds Slack, “but I would think that their poverty exacerbated the problem.”
Spinning his Wheels
From the mid- to late-1830s, the Goodyear family bounced around New England, as Charles moved wherever he could find investors and/or rooms to conduct his experiments. On the plus side, the collapse of the rubber industry made raw latex rubber cheap and relatively easy to acquire. But it also made attracting investors akin to obtaining funding for a dot-com after the burst of the Internet bubble. “One of the huge hurdles for Goodyear was getting anyone to listen to him because people were just fed up,” says Slack.
Nevertheless, Goodyear managed to attract a string of backers in Connecticut and then New York City, but none of these early partnerships were fruitful. On more than one occasion Goodyear felt sure he had discovered the magic formula and rushed into producing expensive consumer goods before testing the durability of his product. Not surprisingly, Goodyear’s investors turned their backs on him when the shoes or bags he made inevitably melted or cracked. “There were three or four times where he really believed,” notes Slack. “Each time the product would come out and it would seem smooth. He would think, ‘Aha, I've got it.’ But the product would fail and his hopes would be dashed.”
However, Goodyear was making incremental progress (early mixtures included magnesia, turpentine, lime and nitric acid) and he was issued a patent on his “acid-gas process" in 1837. The new formula led to higher-quality rubber goods and licensing arrangements even helped Goodyear earn a bit of money, but the nitric-acid products still deteriorated in hot weather.
Citrus, Silk and Rubber
By the late 1830s Goodyear had relocated to Roxbury, Massachusetts, having run out of options in Connecticut and New York. Before long, Goodyear ventured to Woburn to visit Nathaniel Hayward, who operated the factory of the Eagle India Rubber Company.
Woburn was a town with an inferiority complex. Flanked by Boston (a center of learning and politics) and Lowell (a manufacturing colossus), Woburn longed for its own identity. In the mid-1830s the town tried to make a name for itself by growing oranges, an idea that was abandoned as soon as the newly-planted orange trees made their acquaintance with a New England winter. Ignoring the climatic realities a second time, the town fathers then built a 300-acre silk plantation and planted more than ten thousand cold-sensitive Chinese mulberry trees (another nearly total loss) before pinning their hopes on rubber. Needless to say, the town’s rubber products suffered from the same hot-and-cold issues that plagued every other U.S. rubber manufacturer. As a result, Hayward was only too happy to sell the factory to Goodyear in exchange for an $800 annual salary and any knowledge he possessed concerning rubber.
As fate would have it, Hayward had used sulfur in Woburn’s rubber products and together Goodyear and Hayward devised a mixture of rubber, sulfur and white lead that seemed especially promising. However, Goodyear still hadn’t learned to submit his samples to quality control tests and immediately contracted to produce 150 all-weather mailbags for the U.S. Postal Service. When the interior of the bags congealed in the heat the resulting financial setback left him no choice but to relinquish control of the factory.
Slaving Over a Hot Stove
Forced to resume the sulfur-oriented experiments in his home, Goodyear accidentally realized a major breakthrough in the winter of 1839. “Somehow or other, a mixture he was working on fell, or was dropped onto, a hot stove and was left there for a period of time,” recounts Slack. “When he discovered it, he realized to his great surprise, that the sample had turned tough and strong.”
Despite the monumental breakthrough, Goodyear’s frustration was only beginning, because he had no idea how to replicate the process. “He knew he had made this great discovery but he couldn't arrive at the formula to make it happen reliably and consistently. He became consumed with the idea that he was going to die before he made it clear to the world what he’d discovered,” continues Slack.
Over the next several years Goodyear worked feverishly to perfect the process, which would eventually become known as vulcanization, a reference to Vulcan, the Roman God of fire. But now he had the same problem as the boy who cried wolf. No one believed his claims after having seen the results of his earlier discoveries. To make matters worse, years of being unemployed continued to take its toll and Goodyear repeatedly found himself in debtor’s prison.
Short of funds and having been repeatedly burned by acting rashly, Goodyear avoided initiating the expensive patent process until he was sure of the exact formula. But by neglecting his patent application, Goodyear risked losing credit for his invention. “He was the quintessential absent-minded inventor,” says Slack. “He didn't think about the realities of business and the things he needed to do in order to protect himself.”
When Goodyear began selling vulcanized products before patenting the process, a rubber manufacturer named Horace Day bought $26.75 worth of Goodyear’s shoes in an effort to learn the secrets of this new invention. Although Day was unable to deduce the formula by studying the shoes he managed to dog Goodyear for the remainder of his life and beyond, claiming that Goodyear was not the inventor and even infringing on the U.S. patent that Goodyear ultimately received. Eventually, Goodyear—represented by legendary attorney Daniel Webster—would take Day to court and win the landmark Great India Rubber case.
Meanwhile, Goodyear sent a friend named Stephen Moulton to England with sample strips of his vulcanized rubber—he referred to it as “fire-proof gum” or “metallic gum-elastic”—in an effort to attract British investors. One of the potential investors Moulton visited was Thomas Hancock, operator of Charles Macintosh & Company, one of the world’s few profitable rubber concerns. “Hancock was a brilliant scientist and knew rubber better than anyone else, with the possible exception of Goodyear. When he saw the samples he was stunned,” says Slack. He was equally shocked that an American would provide him with samples before securing a British patent.
An astute businessman, Hancock had already built a rubber empire by focusing on consumer goods that weren't likely to reveal rubber's flaws. “In England the climate doesn't have the extremes found in the United States,” notes Slack, “so there was a limited range of rubber products that could be successfully sold.” Hancock had tried to solve rubber's hot-and-cold problem but was discouraged with the results, and had little motivation to continue his experiments when he already had a thriving business. “I think he had more or less decided that it couldn’t be done,” advises Slack. “He thought we just have to accept rubber the way it is and that it would always be a flawed commodity.”
With Goodyear’s samples in hand, Hancock was faced with a moral dilemma. He could pay £50,000 to this unknown American inventor for the formula and manufacturing rights or retreat to his secret laboratory and try to replicate the process. Either way, Hancock was acutely aware that if someone other than himself controlled this process it would be the end of Charles Macintosh & Company. For better or worse, the strips provided several tantalizing clues as to how vulcanization was achieved. “Sulfur has a tendency to rise to the surface in what's called a sulfur bloom,” says Slack. “Hancock noticed a rash of sulfur [on one of the strips] and the pieces were darkened as though they'd been heated. Hancock went to his locked laboratory in London and spent close to a year using sulfur, rubber and heat and trying to reverse-engineer. Ultimately, he was successful. He beat Goodyear to the patent office by just a few weeks.”
Meanwhile, selling a small batch of vulcanized goods in France also came back to haunt Goodyear. “He lost out on the French patent because they have this rule in France where if you have ever sold a product before patenting it then it becomes public property,” notes Slack. Ultimately, Goodyear was limited to the U.S. patent, which was approved on June 15, 1844.
Rubber Bounces Back
A decade earlier the rubber industry was virtually dead but by the mid-1840s it was thriving like never before. Businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic were becoming wealthy from vulcanized rubber products, yet Goodyear had to settle for relatively modest financial rewards. Aside from the fact that he often sold his rights for a flat fee, his biggest mistake was his unwillingness crank out mass-produced items.
“The way you become rich after you invent something is to find a way to repeat it and then make a whole lot of the same thing and then sell them,” notes Slack. “Goodyear’s mind worked in such a way that he always wanted to be tinkering with the next invention or creating the next beautiful product. While other people were cranking out carriage covers and making money, Goodyear would be off making rubber ship sails and rubber desks.”
Regardless, Goodyear did seem to enjoy the fame brought by his invention. “He was a real romantic about rubber and was happy about his legacy even when he died,” claims Slack. But for his long-suffering wife, Clarissa, financial security proved elusive as she died in May of 1853 at the age of 49. “Tragically, she never really got to reap the rewards of his invention because Goodyear was such a terrible businessman,” continues Slack.
Exactly one year after Clarissa’s death Goodyear remarried, wedding a 20-year-old named Fanny Wardell. By this time, Goodyear had escaped the shadow of poverty, but wasn't exactly living in the lap of luxury. “He died about $200,000 in debt, at least according to the calculations of his son,” says Slack. “No matter how much he earned he always spent more than he made and owed a lot of people money.”
Rubber Meets the Road
Thirty-eight years after Goodyear's death, the Seiberling brothers founded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. “Everyone assumes a connection but there really was no formal association, and no member of the Goodyear family ever held a high position or got rich off the company,” informs Slack.
However, the decision to name the company after Charles Goodyear has generally worked to the favor of both parties. “The Goodyear company gets this assumed association with the inventor and with the birth of the industry,” offers Slack. “On the other side, Goodyear—who labored in obscurity for so long—now has his name on millions of tires and on the blimp.”
How would Goodyear feel if he knew about Goodyear tires and the blimp? One can only speculate, but Slack says, “I think he would be absolutely thrilled. He would have been very pleased to see the blimp and gratified to see the extent to which rubber has become indispensable in basically everything that defines modern life. He always believed his life was well spent because he succeeded in giving this great gift to the world.”