Legend has it that sometime in the 16th-century a Portuguese man was charged with witchcraft after showing samples of cloth, which had been made repellent with rubber. When you think about it, rubber really is pretty magical. Rubber seems like a modern product, but indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest have been using it for as long as 3,500 years. Caoutchouc, it’s original name, was made into balls, figurines, bottles, fabric-coating and other products.
Natural rubber is made out of latex, a milky sap, which extracts from the Pará rubber tree. The tree is native only to the Amazons. There are also other trees, like the African Landolphia, that exude latex. The Pará rubber tree is, and has always been, the world’s largest supplier for natural rubber, though the Congo was a significant contributor during King Leopold’s rule.
The French scientist Francois Fresneau (1703–1770) was the first European to undertake serious experiments with rubber in the mid-18th century (he was the first to find a way to conserve latex on its travel to Europe). Fresneau also wrote a paper on rubber’s potential uses.
Soon, the Western World started using rubber in a large variety of products — pencil erasers, air balloon coating, waterproof fabrics and boots, soles, insulation of cables, water hoses (back then, fires were a big thing in larger cities), and even water beds. Industrial production of natural rubber products started in 1803 in France, with a company manufacturing elastic bands. In 1828 the first US rubber company was founded, the Roxbury India Rubber Co.
Another big push for rubber came when the lucky scientist, Charles Goodyear (1800–1860), invented the vulcanization of rubber in 1843. Apparently, he discovered it quite by accident. Vulcanization increases the quality of rubber significantly, giving it more elasticity, durability, and taking away the stickiness and sensitivity toward temperature changes.
Due to vulcanization, the demand for rubber grew quickly. Its price rose so high that for a short time in 1860, it exceeded the price of silver (today silver is about 150 times more expensive than rubber). Western inventors were in love with rubber and quickly found new uses: combs, stamps, cables, bladders for footballs, golf balls, medical gloves and condoms (first produced in 1855). Rubber also enabled the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. Gutta Percha, a type of rubber from a Malayan tree, was used to insulate the cable.
Demand for rubber suddenly exploded when ten years after the invention of the car (1885), the French company Michelin introduced the first pneumatic car tire. Three years later, in 1898, the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Co. was founded in Akron, Ohio.
European investors soon understood that Brazil, which dominated the natural rubber market, wasn’t fit to meet the rising demands. Labor scarcity (rubber was harvested in remote and malaria-infected areas) was one reason, another was that weather conditions only allowed for harvest between August and January. The situation was much better in the British and Dutch colonies in Asia, and both countries started large-scale plantations.
For the next decades, the U.S. tried to increase the production in Brazil, to gain independence from the now British- and Dutch-controlled business. But the production efficiency and low price of Asian rubber could not be matched. Today, most of the natural rubber still comes from plantations in Asia, with Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and China as its main producers. They account for 90 percent of the world’s natural rubber production.
You may think that today the percentage of natural rubber is only marginal, but it accounts for almost 44 percent. In 2008, that was 9.9 million tons. In comparison, the production of synthetic rubber was 12.8 million tons.
The first commercial synthetic rubber was produced in 1909 by the German company Bayer. But production didn’t take off until the 1940s, with the decline of access to natural rubber during the war in both the US and Germany.
The U.S. government enforced a policy to gain independence from the Asian natural rubber market, which had largely been captured by the Japanese. The first U.S. government-owned synthetic rubber plant went into production in 1942, and synthetic rubber went up from 10,000 tons in to 1941, to 830,000 tons in 1945.
After the war, natural rubber returned to the U.S. and Europe. But with the industrial boom of the 1950s, demand was up and synthetic rubber kept its foot in the market. And in 1959, for the first time, the production of synthetic rubber exceeded that of natural rubber.
Today, rubber is traded as a commodity, with daily varying prices. The tire industry is still the biggest customer of both natural and synthetic rubber.
Below is the full five page article from the 1947 issue of the magazine Popular Mechanics. Click on the images for easier reading.
For more natural and versatile materials like rubber, see these slow living home products.
Images from shorpy.com.