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Charles Goodyear & The History of Rubber

Charles Goodyear Does Not Let Prison Stop His Rubber Experiments.


Charles Goodyear

Charles Goodyear was granted patent #3,633 for vulcanized rubber.

Luckily, as he says, his first experiments required no expensive equipment. Fingers were the best tools for working the gum. The prison officials allowed him a bench and a marble slab, a friend procured him a few dollars' worth of gum, which sold then at five cents a pound, and his wife contributed her rolling pin. That was the beginning.

Charles Goodyear Experiments with Rubber

For a time he believed that, by mixing the raw gum with magnesia and boiling it in lime, he had overcome the stickiness which was the inherent difficulty. He made some sheets of white rubber which were exhibited, and also some articles for sale. His hopes were dashed when he found that weak acid, such as apple juice or vinegar, destroyed his new product. Then in 1836 he found that the application of aqua fortis, or nitric acid, produced a "curing" effect on the rubber and thought that he had discovered the secret. Finding a partner with capital, he leased an abandoned rubber factory on Staten Island. But his partner's fortune was swept away in the panic of 1837, leaving Goodyear again an insolvent debtor. Later he found another partner and went to manufacturing in the deserted plant at Roxbury, with an order from the Government for a large number of mail bags. This order was given wide publicity and it aroused the interest of manufacturers throughout the country. But by the time the goods were ready for delivery the first bags made had rotted from their handles. Only the surface of the rubber had been "cured."

This failure was the last straw, as far as Charles Goodyear's friends were concerned. Only his patient and devoted wife stood by him; she had labored, known want, seen her children go hungry to school, but she seems never to have reproached her husband nor to have doubted his ultimate success. The gentleness and tenderness of his deportment in the home made his family cling to him with deep affection and bear willingly any sacrifice for his sake; though his successive failures generally meant a return of the inventor to the debtor's prison and the casting of his family upon charity.

The Rubber Vulcanization Process

The nitric acid process had not solved the problem but it had been a real step forward. It was in the year 1839, by an accident, that he discovered the true process of vulcanization which cured not the surface alone but the whole mass. He was trying to harden the gum by boiling it with sulphur on his wife's cookstove when he let fall a lump of it on the red hot iron top. It vulcanized instantly. This was an accident which only Goodyear could have interpreted. And it was the last. The strange substance from the jungles of the tropics had been mastered. It remained, however, to perfect the process, to ascertain the accurate formula and the exact degree of heat.


The Goodyears were so poor during these years that they received at any time a barrel of flour from a neighbor thankfully. There is a tradition that on one occasion, when Goodyear desired to cross between Staten Island and New York, he had to give his umbrella to the ferry master as security for his fare, and that the name of the ferry master was Cornelius Vanderbilt, "a man who made much money because he took few chances." The incident may easily have occurred, though the ferry master could hardly have been Vanderbilt himself, unless it had been at an earlier date. Another tradition says that one of Goodyear's neighbors described him to an inquisitive stranger thus: "You will know him when you see him; he has on an India rubber cap, stock, coat, vest, and shoes, and an India rubber purse without a cent in it!
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