April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
”If you meet a man who has on an India-rubber cap, stock, coat, vest, and shoes, with an India-rubber money purse without a cent of money in it, that is he .”
Thus did one of his neighbors describe Charles Goodyear, a seeming lunatic who was trudging around the Eastern seaboard in 1837 trying to drum up interest in rubber products. He had been promoting the general usefulness of rubber for three years with scant success; the industry had already died, and everybody knew it.
A century earlier, French explorers had found Peruvian Indians making boots from the tough, clear sap of a native tree. The party brought some of this substance home with them, and for a few years “gum elastic” stirred mild interest in Europe. The’great British chemist Joseph Priestley claimed that it was good for rubbing out mistakes in manuscripts, thereby giving it the name by which it would forever be known. By-1820 rubber was being manufactured on a small scale, but it was too unstable to be of any real use-it became sticky in the heat, and rock-hard when cold.
Nevertheless, New England Yankees, with their love of anything tricky and new, began buying rubber boots, arid in 1833 a Boston entrepreneur named E. M. Chaffee founded the Roxbury India Rubber Company. Other firms sprang up throughout the Northeast, producing coats, caps, and wagon covers. But in the summer, these items melted into gummy masses so foul-smelling that they had to be buried. The “India-rubber fever” burned itself out, and by the middle of the decade stockholders had lost two million dollars, while most of the factories stood vacant.
Into this highly unpromising situation walked Charles Goodyear, filled with the ingenuous belief that he could make something workable out of rubber. Goodyear had had little enough to encourage him at any point in his life. Born in 1800, the son of a New Haven hardware manufacturer, he entered the family business and soon helped run his father into bankruptcy. By 1830 he was in debtors’ prison. Pour years later, while visiting New York, he wandered into a branch office of the Roxbury Company and examined a rubber life preserver. Goodyear thought the inflating valve crude, bought the preserver, and reappeared a few days later with an improved valve. The manager of the store told him gloomily that he would have done better to improve the rubber.
Goodyear had no background in chemistry and knew nothing whatever about rubber, yet he returned home convinced that “an object so desirable and so important, and so necessary to man’s comfort, as the making of gum-elastic available to his use, was most certainly placed within his reach.” And he knew God had chosen Charles Goodyear as His agent in this great design.
He began his experiments in prison, where he had again been sent for debts. But raw rubber was dirt cheap now-ships were using it for ballast—and Goodyear could get all he needed.
He needed a lot, for he tried mixing with it every substance he could think of-ink, castor oil, soup, cream cheese, witch hazel. Something had to work, and if he tested everything in the world, sooner or later he would find it. Out of prison again, and persuaded that he had made progress, he opened a shop stocked with rubber shoes. Summer came along, and the shoes melted.
He mixed the gum with magnesia and quicklime, and got white rubber smooth and supple as leather. Rejoicing, he announced his discovery to the press, was well praised, and then found that any acid, however weak—a drop of lemonade, saydestroyed the product.
In 1839 he won a government contract for mailbags. The mailbags fell apart as soon as he delivered them.
That same year, however, while experimenting with rubber and sulphur in his kitchen at Woburn, Massachusetts, he spilled some of the mixture onto the top of the stove. To his astonishment, it did not melt, but charred instead. “I… inferred,” he wrote, “that if the charring… could be stopped at the right moment, it might divest the compound of its stickiness throughout.” Goodyear had discovered the process of vulcanization, which made possible the commercial use of rubber. After five years of blind and dogged effort, he had succeeded.
Nobody believed him. People shied away from the relentless monomaniac; he had cried eureka too often. For five more years he plodded around New England, trying to wring a few dollars out of old associates, carrying with him the maddening knowledge that he had found the secret and was unable to exploit it. After one such errand, he said, “I walked home … ten miles, to learn on the threshold that my youngest boy, two years of age, who was in perfect health when I left home, was then dying.” Another time, with his library long since dispersed, he sold his children’s schoolbooks for five dollars. A neighbor recalled once seeing Goodyear’s famished children grubbing up half-ripe potatoes from their garden.
At last, in 1844, he secured a patent. News of his process began to spread, but his desperate situation forced him to sell manufacturing licenses for far less than their true value. Almost immediately, he became embroiled in patent-infringement suits. In 1852, at the urging of a New Jersey-New England combine called The Shoe Associates, Daniel Webster, the aging secretary of state, agreed to defend Goodyear’s patent. Though Webster put less than an hour’s preparation into the trial, he won the case; the vulcanization process was Goodyear’s and Goodyear’s alone. Webster got fifteen thousand dollars for his day’s work—more money than Goodyear had earned in half a century.
Goodyear lived to see his invention I create a major industry—though the company that bore his name was founded years after his death. But he never seemed to make any money himself. When Napoleon III awarded him the Grand Medal of Honor and the Cross of the Legion of Honor for his showing at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the emperor found Goodyear in a debtors’ prison on the outskirts of the city. When he died in 1860, Goodyear was some two hundred thousand dollars in debt.
In later years, however, his penury had ceased to bother him.“[I] am not disposed to repine and say that [I have] planted and others have gathered the fruits,” he wrote once.“The advantages of a career … should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents, as it is too often done. Man has just cause for regret when he sows and nobody reaps.”