The Discovery of Rubber

Although the discovery of usable rubber, the type appropriate for commercialization, only dates back to about two centuries ago, the first apparitions of rubber were seen within native American populations where some Mayas Indians and the native population of Haiti harnessed the substance’s water-resistant properties to begin making clothes and shoes or simply make use of it in simple ball games.

Mayas were the first to use rubber to make various objects
Mayas were the first to use rubber to make various objects

Eventually, some of the great explorers, such as Christopher Columbus came across this substance in the course of their conquests and, fascinated, brought it back to Europe. First, due to its unforeseen properties, rubber was received with skepticism and suspicion of witchcraft. However, industrials quickly revised their judgment, and factories opened throughout Europe, and subsequently, the United States of America.

Harvesting of rubber

Before rubber was ready to be widely commercialized, the world was in a frenzied pursuit of acquiring land rich in rubber trees. Notably, in Africa, King Leopold the Third of Belgium, colonized the Congo Free State with, in mind, its vast supply of rubber. However, it was not
uncommon that the natives were to be forced to harvest the local supply. The exploitation of local populations in this race for rubber lead to great abuses of human rights.

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Vulcanization of rubber

At this stage, the major issue with rubber was that its quality greatly fluctuated based on external factors and as such, made it very difficult to use consistently. For instance, when warm, untreated rubber became sticky, and when cold, became hard and brittle. However, in 1839, a man named Charles Goodyear was experimenting with rubber, trying to make it more reliable. Working with Nathaniel M. Hayward, both men discovered that rubber, when treated with sulfur, lost its stickiness.

Charles Goodyear- a self- taught chemist who experimented with rubber and helped with the discovery of rubber
Charles Goodyear- a self- taught chemist who experimented with rubber

Goodyear later bought this concept from Hayward and started working on his own. One day, when heating up the treated rubber, he accidentally discovered that not only did heat enhance its properties but most importantly, it gave it stability. Natural rubber would now conserve its qualities even when the temperature fluctuated. This process discovered by Goodyear is now known as vulcanization and is the basis of rubber as we know it today. After years of struggle, he finally got his first patent in 1852 and the commercialization of rubber had finally become possible. That was the discovery of rubber used in the industry.

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Synthetic rubber

After the industrial discovery of rubber, it had established itself as a successful commodity and was widely used for automobile and bicycle tires. However, as World War II broke out later in the century, it became apparent that natural rubber would not suffice to support the wartime production of the belligerents. As such, chemists engaged in a race to produce the first synthetic substitutes of rubber. However, the materials they developed did not have the same properties as natural rubber and as such, could not fully replace it. Nonetheless, synthetic rubber today accounts for more than 60% of the world’s production of rubber in its various forms. This largescale commercial production increased the value of rubber and stabilized low prices.

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