Vulcanized Rubber

Vulcanization is the process that makes rubber useful. Before vulcanization rubber was effectively a useless gooey material. It melted in the heat, went brittle in the cold, and made for terrible raincoats. Vulcanization stabilized rubber in a useful state. The rubber we know now exists due to vulcanization.

Charles Goodyear ran a small but successful hardware store earlier in his life. It went bankrupt during a recession.

He pivoted to figuring out how to work with rubber, which ー at that time ー not only melted in the heat but also tended to decompose and smell.

The project was a labor of love, and his family frequently went hungry. While working on his rubber stabilization project, Goodyear was often arrested and jailed for debts he accrued, primarily to purchase chemicals to try to stabilize rubber. His family did not have adequate food and three of his children died. We hear of stories about funder hardships but Goodyear literally sacrificed his children.

In 1839, after years of poverty and debtors’ jail, Goodyear finally discovered that rubber infused with sulfur and slowly heated becomes more flexible. More importantly, it does not again melt, decompose, or smell.

Goodyear won a patent in the US, which others paid him $50,000 for a non-exclusive right to. This company, the Naugatuck India Rubber Company turned into United States Rubber then Uniroyal. Goodyear had entrusted a sample to be sent to England, but Englishman Thomas Hancock literally stole Goodyear’s innovation for patenting in the UK, sending the formula Goodyear shared with him to the patent office as his own. Others also tried stealing his patents but eventually failed.

Goodyear died in 1860, $200,000 in debt. But patent royalties left his family comfortable. In hindsight, many of his patent licenses were sold for far too little. Goodyear had nothing to do with the Goodyear Rubber & Tire company; it was founded in 1898, 28 years after Goodyear’s death.