1800, New Haven, CT
1860, New York, NY
Nineteenth-century America's romance with rubber before vulcanization existed can be compared to the dot.com boom of the 1990s. Thousands of New England families poured their savings into the miracle substance without knowing its drawbacks.
Photos: (left) Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities; (right) The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company
A dogged experimenter with no knowledge of chemistry spent years in debt before inventing vulcanized rubber -- a key industrial substance.
Charles Goodyear and his family suffered through years of failure and poverty before he succeeded in making rubber viable as an industrial material. Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1800, Goodyear decided to become an inventor at the age of 33, after his family's hardware store went under in a national financial crisis. An obsessive man drawn to the Book of Job, Goodyear would endure his own tribulations over the next decade.
The Trouble With Rubber
In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, natural rubber seemed like a wonder substance. In its original form, it was a thick sap that was drained from trees in tropics like Brazil. Coagulated with acid, it became malleable enough to shape and form. Goodyear's experiments were geared toward making rubber stable enough that it would be reliable in industrial settings. No matter what he tried, though, summertime heat destroyed the rubber, turning it into a mass of sticky, smelly gum.
It was not until 1841, after much hardship and time spent in jail for debt, that Goodyear landed on a solution. He found that by uniformly heating sulfur- and lead-fortified rubber at a relatively low temperature, he could render the substance melt-proof and reliable. He patented his process in June 1844, licensed it to manufacturers, and showcased it at exhibitions. Vulcanized rubber could be used to manufacture shoes, waterproof clothing, life jackets, balls, hats, umbrellas, rafts... and one day, it would be an important component in tires, roofs, floors, transmission belts, assembly lines, shock absorbers, seals and gaskets.
The Goodyear Name
Following his success, Goodyear fought to protect his process from competitors and endured patent battles. He died in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. His son would sell the Goodyear name in 1865, the year the patent expired. Several decades later, an Akron tire manufacturer named his own company Goodyear Tire and Rubber, in honor of the inventor.