How Charles Goodyear became the first name in rubber.
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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.