Poor Charlie Goodyear – he couldn’t win for losing.
It started out fine – he married Clarissa Beecher when he was 24 and set up his own hardware store two years later in Philadelphia.
He sold, among other things, farm implements made in America, and farmers were just starting to let go of the idea that the best equipment was made in England. Gradually, they got used to American-made and his business flourished. It looked, in fact, like Goodyear might actually get rich.
But in 1830, his dyspepsia (possibly an ulcer) got so bad he couldn’t work and a number of his business connections failed, threatening his store. He struggled on, but eventually gave up and closed down.
Even as he was dealing with the store’s problems, Goodyear got interested in the substance known as india rubber. After the store closed, he went to visit the Roxbury India Rubber Company in Boston which had had great success manufacturing goods made of the exciting new substance from Brazil – tires, boots, coats, hats balls, shoes.
Goodyear had brought with him a valve he’d invented, which he thought might be of help in making rubber life preservers. The manager conceded it was a good idea, but confessed that the company would probably be out of business soon.
Everybody thought the elastic stuff from the rubber tree was bound to be useful for all kinds of things, but nobody could get it stabilized. It was hard as a rock in the winter and a sticky mess in hot weather. The RIR manager confessed that the company was getting thousands of returns, so many they were being buried in a pit at night.
The dejected Goodyear went back to Philly, where he was promptly arrested at the behest of his creditors and sent to debtors’ prison. But Goodyear, in the grip of an obsession, started experimenting with india rubber while confined. (With the help of friends, he was finally released.)
Over the years, he tried magnesia, nitric acid, quicklime, just about anything he could think of to stabilize the india rubber, but sooner or later, it all went sticky again.
Finally, Goodyear heard about a guy named Nathaniel Hayward, who was using sulfur to dry the stuff. Another six years of noodling around with the mixture and Goodyear had it figured out. He got his patent for vulcanized rubber on this date in 1844.
Despite having impressed the world at international exhibitions and licensed his process to various manufacturers, when Goodyear died at the age of 59 he was $200,000 in debt. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, btw, had nothing to do with Goodyear himself – founder Frank Seiberling just named the company in his honor.
Ironically, the process for vulcanizing rubber had been discovered long before Goodyear or even the USA came on the scene. The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica had been playing a game in their ballcourts that made use of a vulcanized rubber ball about the size of a volleyball, but solid, rather than inflated.
The existence of such an artifact is known through its depiction in wall art and about half a dozen similar objects have been collected by archeologists, though these are much smaller. Also from Aztec art, scholars have deduced that the smaller versions were offerings to the gods.
How did they do it? Some genius – I’m guessing an Olmec, since their name is derived from the word for rubber – figured out that if you combined the sticky, elastic sap of the Castilla elastiica (Panama rubber tree or olicuáhuitl in Nahuatl) with the juice of the moonflower (ipomea alba) – which has a high sulfur content – you got something that held its shape and didn’t melt in the heat. (Okay, it helped that the ipomoea vine often grows on the Castilla elastiica.)
Which begs the question, is there anything new under the sun?