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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
time, Goodyear got new backing in Boston and again
seesawed to momentary prosperity. His partners
wangled a government contract for 150 mailbags,
to be manufactured by the nitric-acid process.
After making the bags Goodyear was so sure of
himself that he stored them in a warm room and
took the family away for a month's vacation. When
he returned, the mailbags were melted. Underneath
their "dry-as-cloth" surface lay the
same old sticky gum.
five futile years, Goodyear was near rock bottom.
Farmers around Woburn, Mass. where he now lived,
gave his children milk and let them dig half-grown
potatoes for food.
great discovery came in the winter of 1839. Goodyear
was using sulphur in his experiments now. Although
Goodyear himself has left the details in doubt,
the most persistent story is that one February
day he wandered into Woburn's general store to
show off his latest gum-and-sulphur formula. Snickers
rose from the cracker-barrel forum, and the usually
mild-mannered little inventor got excited, waved
his sticky fistful of gum in the air. It flew
from his fingers and landed on the sizzling-hot
he bent to scrape it off, he found that instead
of melting like molasses, it had charred like
leather. And around the charred area was a dry,
springy brown rim -- "gum elastic" still,
but so remarkably altered that it was virtually
a new substance. He had made weatherproof rubber.
discovery is often cited as one of history's most
celebrated "accidents." Goodyear stoutly
denied that. Like Newton's falling apple, he maintained,
the hot stove incident held meaning only for the
man "whose mind was prepared to draw an inference."
That meant, he added simply, the one who had "applied
himself most perseveringly to the subject."
winter after Goodyear's discovery was the blackest
of his life. Dyspeptic and gout-racked, his health
broken, he hobbled about his experiments on crutches.
He knew now that heat and sulphur miraculously
changed rubber. But how much heat, for how long?
With endless patience he roasted bits of rubber
in hot sand, toasted them like marshmallows, steamed
them over the teakettle, pressed them between
hot irons. When his long-suffering wife took her
bread from the oven he thrust in chunks of evil-smelling
night he lay awake, afraid that he would die and
the secret die with him. He pawned his watch and
the household furniture.
even the dinnerware was gone, he made rubber dishes
to eat from. Then the food was gone too.
spring he went to Boston to look up friends, found
none, was jailed for nonpayment of a $5 hotel
bill, and came home to find his infant son dead.
Unable to pay for a funeral, Goodyear hauled the
little coffin to the graveyard in a borrowed wagon.
Of the 12 Goodyear children, six died in infancy.
last he found that steam under pressure, applied
for four to six hours at around 270 degrees Fahrenheit,
gave him the most uniform results. He wrote his
wealthy New York brother-in-law -- who had once
lectured him about his parental obligations --
of his discovery. This time the brother-in-law,
a textile manufacturer, was interested, for Charles
told him that interwoven rubber threads would
produce the fashionable puckered effect then much
favored in men's shirts. Two "shirred goods"
factories were rushed into production and, on
the ruffled shirtfronts of dandies, rubber rode
to worldwide success.
soon as he could, Goodyear disposed of the manufacturing
interests which might have made him a millionaire
and went back to his experiments. He wanted to
make everything of rubber: banknotes, musical
instruments, flags, jewelry, ship sails, even
ships themselves. He had his portrait painted
on rubber, his calling cards engraved on it, his
autobiography printed on and bound in it. He wore
rubber hats, vests, ties.
saw rubber as what we know it is today: the first
and most versatile of the modern "plastics."
He perceived in it a "vegetable leather"
that defied the elements, an "elastic metal,"
a wood substitute that could be shaped in molds.
of his ideas still turn up as "new"
uses for rubber. Many food packagers, for example,
now wrap their products in Pliofilm, a rubber-derived
plastic; Goodyear suggested the same application
in 1850. Rubber paint, car springs, ferryboat
bumpers, wheelbarrow tires, inflatable life rafts,
and "frogmen" suits are other recent
innovations he described a century ago.
business deals, licensing manufacture under his
scores of patents, were ridiculously bad. Shirred-goods
rights, for instance, went for royalty of three
cents a yard; the licensees made $3 a yard.
"patent pirates" Goodyear was forced
to prosecute 32 infringement cases all the way
to the U.S. Supreme Court. In one famous 1852
case, his advocate was no less a personage than
Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Goodyear paid
Webster $15,000 for temporarily doffing the robes
of Cabinet office -- the largest fee ever paid
an American lawyer to that time. In a two-day
speech Webster won a permanent injunction against
further patent infringements. It made headlines,
but it didn't stop the piracy.
was slow in filing foreign patent applications.
But he had sent samples of his heat-and-sulphur-treated
gum to British rubber companies without revealing
details. One sample was seen by famed English
rubber pioneer Thomas Hancock, who had been trying
for 20 years to make weatherproof rubber. Hancock
noticed a yellowish sulphur "bloom"
on the Goodyear sample's surface. With that clue,
he reinvented vulcanized rubber in 1843, four
years after Goodyear. By the time Goodyear applied
for an English patent he found that Hancock had
filed a few weeks earlier.
a half-share of the Hancock patent to drop his
suit, Goodyear foolishly declined -- and lost.
A friend of Hancock named the contested process
"vulcanization," after Vulcan, the Roman
god of fire.
the London and Paris world's fairs of the 1850s
Goodyear installed great pavilions built entirely
of rubber, floor to roof. When his French patent
was canceled on a technicality and his French
royalties stopped before he could pay his bills,
he was seized by gendarmes and hustled off to
a 16-day stay at his familiar "hotel"
(as he called it) -- debtors' prison. There he
received the Cross of the Legion of Honor, bestowed
by Emperor Napoleon III.
he died, in 1860, he was $200,000 in debt. Eventually,
however, accumulated royalties made his family
comfortable. His son Charles Jr., inherited something
more precious -- inventive talent -- and later
built a small fortune on shoemaking machinery.
Goodyear nor his family was ever connected with
the company named in his honor, today's billion-dollar
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the world's largest
rubber business. Goodyear's only direct descendant
among modern companies is United States Rubber,
which years ago absorbed a small company he once
served as director.
there is a cultivated rubber tree for every two
human beings on earth. Three million tree "milkers"
harvest the crop. The United States alone imports
almost half of it, and synthesizes as much or
more from petroleum. Nearly 300,000 Americans
earn their livelihoods in rubber manufacturing,
this year will produce $6 billion worth of products.
whole huge apparatus owes its existence to the
invincible little fanatic who might have died
a bitter man, but didn't.
he wrote, "should not be estimated exclusively
by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not
disposed to complain that I have planted and others
have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for
regret only when he sows and no one reaps."
FROM THE JANUARY 1958 ISSUE OF READER'S DIGEST.
©1957 THE READER'S DIGEST ASSOCIATION, INC.,
PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. 10570 PRINTED IN U.S.A.
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