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Early History of Rubber & Rubber Products

Christopher Columbus Brings Rubber To Europe

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Rubber flooring made from chunks of recycled rubber

Rubber flooring made from chunks of recycled rubber

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When Christopher Columbus revisited Haiti on his second voyage, he observed some natives playing ball. Columbus' own men had brought their Castilian wind-balls to play with in idle hours. However, they found that the balls of Haiti were incomparably superior toys; they bounced better. These high bouncing balls were made from a milky fluid, the consistency of honey, which the natives harvested by tapping certain trees and then cured over the smoke of palm nuts.

Introducing Rubber

In 1736, a French astronomer was sent by his government to Peru to measure an arc of the meridian, He brought home samples of the milky fluid and reported that the Indians used it for lighting. He wrote that it burned without a wick very brightly and that the indians made shoes from it which were waterproof. The Indians collected the gummy fluid from trees in pear-shaped bottles on the necks of which they fasten wooden tubes. Pressure on the bottle sends the liquid squirting out of the tube, so they resemble syringes. Their name for the fluid, he added, was cachuchu or caoutchouc.

Thirty-four years later, an English writer wrote about a different use for the tree gum and a new name. A stationer accidentally discovered that it would erase pencil marks, And, as it came from the Indies and rubbed, of course it was renamed India rubber.

Rubber Soled Shoes

About the year 1820 American merchantmen, sailing between Brazil and New England, often carried rubber as extra ballast on the home voyage and dumped it on the wharves at Boston. One of the shipmasters exhibited to his friends a pair of native shoes made from rubber. Another, with more foresight, brought home five hundred pairs, and offered them for sale. They were thick, clumsily shaped, and heavy, but they sold. There was a demand for more. In a few years half a million pairs were being imported annually. New England manufacturers bid against one another along the wharves for the tree gum which had been used as ballast and began to make rubber shoes.

Macintosh Elastic Fabric

European vessels had also carried rubber home; and experiments were being made with it in France and Britain. A Frenchman manufactured suspenders by cutting a native bottle into fine threads and running them through a narrow cloth web. And Macintosh, a chemist of Glasgow, inserted rubber treated with naphtha between thin pieces of cloth and evolved the garment that still bears his name.

Waterproof Fabrics

At first the new business in rubber yielded profits. The cost of the raw material was infinitesimal; and there was a demand for the finished articles. In Roxbury, Massachusetts, a firm manufacturing patent leather treated raw rubber with turpentine and lampblack and spread it on cloth, in an effort to produce a waterproof leather. The process appeared to be a complete success, and a large capital was employed to make handsome shoes and clothing out of the new product and in opening shops in the large cities for their sale. Merchants throughout the country placed orders for these goods, which, as it happened, were made and shipped in winter.

Rubber Has Problems in the Heat and Cold

But, when summer came, the huge profits of the manufacturers literally melted away, for the beautiful garments decomposed in the heat; and loads of them, melting and running together, were being returned to the factory. And they filled Roxbury with such noisome odors that they had to be taken out at dead of night and buried deep in the earth.

And not only did these rubber garments melt in the heat. It presently transpired that severe frost stiffened them to the rigidity of granite.

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