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History TimelineHistoric OverviewHistory by YearOrigin of Wingfoot LogoA History of LeadershipThe Charles Goodyear StoryThe Wingfoot Express

The Charles Goodyear StoryThe Strange Story of Rubber

In midsummer of 1834 a bankrupt hardware merchant from Philadelphia, Charles Goodyear, walked into the New York retail store of the Roxbury India Rubber Co., America’s first rubber manufacturer. He showed the store manager a new valve he had devised for rubber life preservers. The manager shook his head sadly. The company wasn’t in the market for valves now; it would be lucky to stay in business at all.

He showed Goodyear why: rack on rack of rubber goods which had been melted to malodorous glue by the torrid weather. In the company’s factory at Roxbury, Mass., he confided, thousands of melted rubber articles were being returned by outraged customers. The directors had met in the dead of night to bury $20,000 worth of stinking rejects in a pit.

The “rubber fever” of the early 1830s had ended as suddenly as it had begun. At first everybody had wanted things made of the new waterproof gum from Brazil, and factories had sprung up to meet the demand. Then abruptly the public had become fed up with the messy stuff which froze bone-hard in winter and turned glue-like in summer. Not one of the young rubber companies survived as long as five years. Investors lost millions. Rubber, everyone agreed, was through in America.

Goodyear disappointedly pocketed the valve and took his first good look at rubber. He had played with bits of it as a child, but now, at 34, he experienced a sudden curiosity and wonder about this mysterious “gum elastic.” “There is probably no other inert substance,” he said later, “which so excites the mind.”

Returning to Philadelphia, Goodyear was clapped into jail for debt. It was not his first sojourn there, nor his last. He asked his wife to bring him a batch of raw rubber and her rolling pin. Here, in his cell, Goodyear made his first rubber experiments, kneading and working the gum hour after hour.

If rubber was naturally adhesive, he reasoned, why couldn’t a dry powder be mixed in to absorb its stickiness — perhaps the talc-like magnesia powder sold in drugstores? Out of jail again, he tried, with promising results.

He talked a boyhood friend into backing a modest venture. Charles, his wife and small daughters made up several hundred pairs of magnesia-dried rubber overshoes in their kitchen. But before he could market them summer came, and he watched his footwear sag into shapeless paste.

Neighbors complained about Goodyear’s smelly gum, so he moved his experiments to New York. There a friend gave him a fourth-floor tenement bedroom for his “laboratory.” A brother-in-law came to his squalid quarters, lectured him about his hungry children, advised him that rubber was dead. “I am the man to bring it back,” said Goodyear.

He was adding two drying agents to his rubber now, magnesia and quicklime, then boiling the mixture and getting a better product all the time. Impressed, a New York trade show awarded him a medal.

Goodyear lavished all the arts of decoration on his dingy samples, painted them, gilded them, embossed them. Running short of material one morning, he decided to re-use an old decorated sample and applied nitric acid to remove its bronze paint. The piece turned black, and Goodyear threw it away.

A few days later he remembered that somehow the blackened scrap had felt different. He retrieved it from his trash can and found he was right. The nitric acid had done something to the rubber, made it almost as smooth and dry as cloth. This was better rubber than anyone had ever made before.

A New York businessman advanced several thousand dollars to begin production. But the financial panic of 1837 promptly wiped out both the backer and the business. Destitute, Charles and his family camped in the abandoned rubber factory on Staten Island, living on fish he caught in the harbor.

Read the full story here:

http://www.goodyear.com/corporate/history/history_story.html

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