Natuaral Materials: Rubber

Figure 1.--

Rubber is a highly elatic substance polymerized by the drying and coagulation of the milky juices or latex of various plants, especially the tropical rubber plant. Rubber is now thought of primarily in connecton with automobile tires. The first uses of rubber were in fact associated with the clothing industry. Rubber was known to native Americans in Central America and brought back to Europe in the 16th-17th centuries where its unique properties, especially its elaasticity were noted. It was not until the early-19th century, however, that practical uses were found for it, launing a financial bubble. The reaction of rubber to hot weather, however, made it difficult to use until Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process. Besides its uses in clothing, rubber became a major industrial product. Japanese seizure of Mayaysia and the East Indies during World War II closed major suppliers to the Allies leading to the development of stnthetic rubber in America.

The Plant

The milky juices or latex of various plants, especially the tropical rubber plant, are the sources of natural rubber. The Russians expeimented with fields of dandelions. Thomas Eddison experimented with goldenrod. [Black] The most productive plants are from the Hevea and Ficus genus. The presence of these plants in tropical America ment that rubber was first used there. Hévéa, a native tree of tropical Amazonia, is the primary source of natural rubber. The Latex is tapped from the tree and allowed to coagulate, producing raw rubber. The properties of this natural elastic material gives the following qualities: suppleness, robustness, and waterproofing. Rubber is a highly elatic substance polymerized by the dryinging and coagulation of latex.

Native Americans

Native Anericans in South and Central America discovered plant latexnd develope rubber. They used it for mny of the purposes for which it is now usedballs, containers, footwear, and waterproofing fabrics.


The first Europeans to menion rubber were Portuguese and Spanish explorrs in the 16th century. It ws a curiosity that attracted little commercial or scientific interest Charles de la Condamine and François Fresneau reported on it to the French Academy of Sciences (1736-51). Research addressed the issues of solvents and in waterproofing fabrics, but only limited progress was made. The only use made for rubber in the 18th century was elastic bands and erasers. These were made by cutting chucks of rubber imported from Brazil into small pieces. Joseph Priestley is believed to have discovered it uses as an eraser about 1770. This explains the term rubberc. Writing could be erassed by rubbing the paper with the new material. (The British still refer a pencil eraser as a "rubber".)

Industrial Processes

It was in the 19th century that the modern rubber industry began to develop. Turpentine was discvered o be an excellent solvent. The French established the first rubber factory near Paris in 1803. Thomas Hancock opened the first British factory in 1820. Hancock invented the firt primitive the masticator (rollers through which the rubber is passed to partially break the polymer chains). Edwin Chaffeeand, an American, in 1835 patented a mixing mill and a calender (a press for rolling the rubber into sheets). Charles Macintosh, a Scottman, in 1823, invented a practical means of waterproofing fabrics. Waterproof garments such as raincoats are still "macs" in Britain. Many people invested in rubber on the basis of these developments. Actual commercial successes were, however limited because of serious difficulties working with natural rubber. The plant liuid latex spoils quickly. The most serious flaw was that rubber had a tendency to form a gooey mess in hot weather. This was a serious impediment in countries which had climates with consderable temperature fluctuations. Charles Goodyear , an American, solved that problem when he stumbled on to the vulcanization process. Goodyear was trying to sell a valve for a life preserver made by India Rubber Company when an executive showed in 1834 him a warehouse full of spoiled products returned by customers when a heat wave hit New England. Goodyear set to work on the problem and by 1839 had the answer--adding sulfur. The term vulcanizaton was coined by Hancock. He had though the problems with rubber were insolvable. When he learned about Goodyear's achievemnt he pirated Goodyear's process and patented it in Britain. [Black]

The Chemistry

Goodyear stumbled on the vulcanization process by accident. He apparently dropped a mixture he was working with on the stove. The chemistry of rubber's unique poroperties was compleletely unknown to 19th century chemists and industrialsts. The chemical make up of rubber is C5H8. These molecules in natural rubber are strung together in emense chains giving rubber its elasticity. The affect of heat is that temperature affects these chains. Heats breaks down the chains creating a gooey mess. he sulphur used in the vulcanization process helps to connect the molecules.


Few natural materials have so many varied uses as rubber. This was mase evident after Pearl Harbor when the Japanese seized the Mlay Peninsula and other areas of Southeast Asia. This was where the great bulk of the world's natural rubber was produced. This almost crippled the American war economy. Only the rapid creation of a synthetic rubber indistry prevented dusaster. The number of industrial products made from rubber are virtually numerous. For our HBC website, however, we are orimarily interested in the use of rubber in the clothing indusyry.

Clothing uses

Most of the early uses of rubber were in the clothing industry during the early and mid-19th century and were related to the unique features of rubber. Rubber could be spread on fabric or molded for use in footwear. It was waterproof and highly pliable. It was extremely elastic, could be compressed or streached and then bounce back. It a nutshell there was really nothing like it. The waterproofing properties made it useful in producing waterproof raincoats as well as water repellant fabrics. Galoshes and rubber covers for shoes were also developed. The Union Army extensively used it in the Civil War for waterproof tents, ponchos, and containers. The elacity of rubber also made it useful to use in elastic bands are elsticized clothing as closeners such as on boy's knicker bloomers worn in the mid-19th century. We are not sure just who developed elastic and when. Another important product was rubber Welington boots and rubber-sole shoes eventually leading to modern sneakers, initially called plimsols in England. In addition to the clothing items, we also want to develop a chrionology of rubber used in clothing.

Military and industrial uses

Military and industrail uses are to a large degree intertwined. There were many uses for rubber in railroads and steam engines, both of which have obvious military implications. There were countless military uses for rubber. It was used in "... shoes and boots, blankets, hats, coats, pontoon boats, bayonet guards, tents, ground sheets, canteens, powder flasks, haversacks, and buttons. Rubberized silk was used for military balloons. War also created a boom in reconstructive surgery using hard rubber teeth, nose pieces, and custom-molded prosthetics." [Jackson] In the latter half of the 19th century the rise of the electrical and telephone industries created a demand for rubber insulaton. the demand for rubber insulation by the electrical industry. There proved be a wide range of industrial uses from washers to flexible hose pipes. The potential of rubber was in large measured realized by a Scottish inventor, John Boyd Dunlop whose 10-year old son Johine loved to ride his tricycle, but got headaches from the joshling riding over rough roads. The metal tires gave a very jarring ride when Johnie got up a ittle speed. The first practical pneumatic tire was made by Dunlop in 1887 for Johnie. Other inventors had been working on the idea, but it was Dunlop who proved that rubber could withstand rough wear abd still retain its resilience. Dunlop produced the first commercial pneumatic tire (1888). The rapidly developing bicycle industry was the first major masrket. We are not sure just how rapidly these tires replaced metal tires. We see metal tires being used in the late 1890s. An example here is American boy Joseph C. Ritter in 1897. It was the development of the automobile industry beginning at the turn of the 20th century that created vastly increased demand for rubber needed for pneumatic tires. Thus in the 20th centyry rubber became a critical natural resource.


Natural rubber in the 19th century was primarily harvested in South and Central America and in Africa. King Leopold II of Belgian develoed an especially cruel system for harvesting rubber in the Belgian Congo. The relative small quantities of rubber demanded in the 19th century meant that the demand for rubber could be satidfied through harvesting from wild rubber trees. Much of it was from the Pará rubber plant originating in the Amazon basin. Imense fortunes were made in Brazil. Brazil placed legal restrictions on exporting seeds of the plant, but they were smuggled into England in 1876. The seedlings were sent to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). The promixity to India led to rubber being commoinly referred to as India Rubber. The British also began to cultivate rubber in other tropical colonial possesions especially on the Malay Peninsula. Malaya had been a minor outpost of the British Empire. Rubber and the development of effective plantation methods turned Malatya into one of the most valuavle colonial possessions. The Dutch opened plantations on Java and Sumatra, launching the East Indies rubber industry. The efficient cultivation of rubber in the East Indies soon surplanted the wild collection of rubber in Brazil. American rubber companies so as not to be shut out of the market, expanded plantations in Liberia and in South and Central America. Even so the vast proportion of the World's rubber was produced on or near to the Malay Peninsula.

Synthetic Rubber

Germany developd a synthetic rubber during World War I, one of many Ersatzroducrs. It was, however, a very expensive process unsuitable for commercial use. American reserchers developed a more economically viable process in 1927 and neoprene in 193?. German scientists created Buna rubber just bfore the outbreak of World War II in Europe (1939). The Royal Navy command of the sea meant that Germany could no longer obtain natural rubber once war broke out. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and seizure of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies cut the Allies supply of natural rubber. Small anounts of rubber were produced in other areas, but the great bulk of the world's production was in Malaya, Borneo, and the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese launched the War to obtain the oil in the DEI, the rubber was a very important side benefit. The Japanese seizure of Malaya and the DEI presented the Allies with a crisis. Modern war could not be conducted without rubber. The obvious product is rubber tires, but in fact there are countless other items. Even a weapon system as distant from wheeled vehicles as a battleship has hundreds of rubber parts. The Allies were thus presented with a crisis. The American respmsw was one of the great industrial succsses of the War. The United States instituted a three-pronged response. 1) Rationing was instituted and scrap drives organized. 2) Programs were initiated to maximize production in areas still not under Axis control (especially West Africa and Brazil). 3) A crash industrial progam was launched to create a whole new industry. The United States launched the large-scale manufacture of synthetic rubber. Synthetic rubber now accounts for about 60 percent world rubber production.

World War II

One of the vital materials and least appreciated raw materials in World War II was Rubber Oil is the most discussed raw material znf it sas the major problem faced by the Axis. Ribber was, hosever the makof problem faced by the Allies. Rubber is a highly elatic substance polymerized by the drying and coagulation of the milky juices or latex of various plants, especially the tropical rubber plant. Rubber is now thought of primarily in connecton with automobile tires. The first uses of rubber were in fact associated with the clothing industry. Rubber was known to native Americans in Meso-America and brought back to Europe where its unique properties, especially its elaasticity were noted (16th-17th centuries). It was not until the early-19th century, however, that practical uses were found for this substance, launching a financial bubble. The reaction of rubber to hot weather, however, made it difficult to use until Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process. Besides its uses in clothing, rubber became a major industrial product. The most obvious was tires which became particularly important with the invention of the automobile and internal combustion engine. This began to become a factor in warfare when American trucks began to reach the Allies in large numbers during World War I. And rubber became far more important in World War II as it was the first highly mdechanized war in history. Tires are the most obvious use of ribber in the War, however, only a part of the rubber story. Thousands of products were made from rubber and many found there way into comnplex weapons like ships, air planes, and motorized vehicles. The Allies controlled rubber production at the onset of the World War II because most of it was produced in Southeast Asia, epecially British Malaya, but the Dutch East Indies (DEI) were also important. The Japanese carrier strike a Pearl Harbor and the ensuing Japanese offensive in Southeast Asia (December 1941), radically changed that situation. Japanese seizure of Mayaya and the DEI closed major suppliers to the Allies. The Allied response was wht the Germans were already doing--rapid development of synthetic rubber in America. The primary Japanese objective was oil, but rubber was an important bonus. American supplied all the oil Britain needed, but there were no major alternative sources of natural rubber. Rubber suddenly became a problem for the Allies. Only a crash expansion of a synthetic rubber industry and expasion of rubber production in other tropical areas (Brazil and West Africa) allowed the Allies to produce critical rubber products. Gas rationing in America was designed more to reduce rubber consumption than the need to conserve gas. And disapoingly for the Japanese militarists who launchd the Pacific War, the rubber, tin, and other resorces as wel as the rest of Southeast Asia (the Southern Resource Zone --SRZ) contrary to all expectations proved of little benefit to the Japanese war economy. This had been Japan's major reason for going to War. While there were initially problems with the American submrine offensive, by 1943 the American sumarines began to effectivlyh interdict the Japanese Maru fleet creating shortages in Japanese war plants. The Americans by 1944 seesntially destroyed the Maru fleet cutting off the CRZ raw materils which could no longer reaching the Home Islands.


Black, Charles. Nobel Obsession.

Jackson, Joe. The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire (Penguin: 2008).


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Created: October 26, 2002
Last updated: 5:34 AM 1/20/2015