History of Rubber

Natural Rubber

Long before the voyages of Columbus, Indians in tropical America used rubber to waterproof shoes and fabrics and to make bottles and balls. Europeans brought back samples and made many efforts to produce waterproof rubberized fabrics, but the rubber turned gluey in hot weather and became brittle in cold. Their first practical use of rubber, which was then called by its Indian name of caoutchouc ("weeping tree"), was as a pencil eraser, or rubber. It is from this use that the English chemist Joseph Priestley in 1770 named the substance rubber.

In 1820 Thomas Hancock, of England, made an important advance by inventing the masticating process. However, the rubber products still became tacky or brittle with temperature changes. About 1832 Charles Goodyear, of the United States, began to seek a means of keeping rubber pliable and solid in all weather. He was unsuccessful until 1839, when he heated a mixture of rubber and sulfur. He found that the leathery rubber thus produced was unaffected by the weather. Thus vulcanization (named for the Roman god of fire) was discovered. (The story that Goodyear discovered vulcanization accidentally in his wife's kitchen is doubted by historians.)

In 1841 Goodyear gave some vulcanized rubber to an English visitor, who passed it on to Hancock. Hancock discovered how it was made, and in 1843 took out a British patent for vulcanizing rubber. Goodyear did not take out a United States patent until the following year.

Demand for rubber increased. In 1876 Henry Wickham, of England, sent several baskets of Brazilian rubber seeds to England. The seeds were planted in Kew Gardens, and about 2,000 of the plants that sprouted from the seeds were shipped to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Later, seeds and plants were distributed to Malaya and other countries of Southeast Asia. In this way the growing of rubber was transferred from tropical America to plantations in the Far East.

Synthetic Rubber

In 1826 Michael Faraday, of England, discovered that rubber is a hydrocarbon, composed of five parts of carbon to eight parts of hydrogen. Another Englishman, Greville Williams, in 1860 changed solid rubber into a liquid he called isoprene. A Frenchman, Gust$aAve Bouchardat, treated isoprene with hydrochloric acid and obtained a rubbery substance in 1879. In 1892 Sir William Tilden, of England, produced a synthetic rubber from isoprene obtained from turpentine. His process, however, was not commercially practicable. Butadiene was first made in 1863 by the French chemist J. B. Caventou. Butadiene was polymerized to rubber in 1910.

In World War I, German scientists developed a synthetic rubber that was satisfactory for hard rubber goods but not for tires and other articles of soft rubber. Two Russian scientists working in the United States, I. Ostromislensky and A. T. Maximoff, made butadiene by a new process in 1922, and in 1923 they produced a synthetic rubber from it.

In 1926 German scientists began efforts to make synthetic rubber from butadiene. They first produced Buna-S from butadiene and sodium, and they later produced Buna-N from butadiene and acrylonitrile. Neoprene was developed in the United States in 1931.

World War II greatly stimulated the search for a good synthetic rubber, and GR-S (SBR) and a number of other satisfactory substitutes were discovered. Beginning in 1950, new methods for making polymers and rubbers were discovered, and by 1959 an isoprene synthetic rubber identical to natural rubber was commercially available. A similar rubber made from butadiene came into use a few years later.