...in 1844, after a decade of hardship and perseverance, Charles Goodyear received a patent for vulcanized rubber. The first boots and clothing made from rubber had performed poorly in the American environment. They melted in the heat and cracked in the cold. Determined to find a way to make rubber stable and pliable, Goodyear moved his family to Massachusetts, where the nation's first rubber factories were located. When one after another of his experiments failed, his family fell into poverty. Finally, on a winter's day in 1839, Goodyear hit on a formula that worked. It took another five years, but in 1844 he patented the process. Charles Goodyear became a celebrity and vulcanized rubber became an unremarkable part of everyday life.
On a visit to New York City in 1834, Charles Goodyear passed the Roxbury Rubber Company's retail store and was struck by a new product on display a rubber life preserver. Actually, what first caught his attention was the crude valve; he went home and immediately set about improving it.
When the 34-year-old returned to the store with his invention a few days later, the manager told him a sad secret: the one-year-old Roxbury India Rubber Company the first rubber company in the United States was on the brink of bankruptcy. Customers had eagerly purchased the shoes, boots, raincoats, and other items made of rubberized cloth in a Roxbury, Massachusetts, factory, but in the heat of summer the rubber goods turned into a gooey, foul-smelling mess; in the winter, they froze stiff.
The "rubber fever" of the early 1830s that had spawned the factory in Roxbury and other towns around Boston cooled almost as quickly as it had heated up. In its natural state, rubber had a fatal flaw: it melted in hot weather and froze in the cold. This flaw had not been obvious in temperate Ecuador, where native people had been fashioning the liquid known as "weeping wood" into boots and bottles for centuries. Nor had it first been noticeable in the milder climate of Britain, where Thomas Hancock and Charles Mackintosh developed a rubber-coated cloth that they made into "Mackintosh" raincoats in the 1820s.
Massachusetts entrepreneurs responded to the demand for clothes made from rubberized cloth by building factories, first in Roxbury and then in other towns around Boston, such as Woburn, 12 miles to the northeast. There, on the banks of the Aberjona River, the Eagle India Rubber Company took over a building from a failed silk factory and began producing a variety of rubber goods aprons, life preservers, hats, carriage tops, and, by 1836, waterproof shoes.
Then rubber's fatal flaw became apparent, and the "Great India Rubber Panic" of the 1830s caused most of New England's rubber factories to close. While the rubber industry in America seemed destined for failure, Charles Goodyear had not lost faith. He had no scientific training, but by 1835, he had spent two years experimenting with rubber and was completely obsessed with it.
After reading in a newspaper that 20 people drowned worldwide each hour, he had become convinced that he had a God-given mission to prevent such loss of life. Rubber life preservers, he believed, could be the solution. He did not have a job, but lived, barely, off the money he persuaded investors to advance him. He reduced his family to poverty, was jailed for debt, and derided as a mad man, but he persevered.
When his repeated failures scared off the last of his investors, he resorted to unsecured borrowing and landed in debtors' prison. On his release, he pleaded with neighbors for charity and pawned his family's furnishings, even his children's school books. Woburn farmers recalled that the Goodyear children were so hungry they would dig up potatoes that were only half grown. Six of his twelve children died before reaching adulthood.
Finally, in 1839, Goodyear had a breakthrough. A former business partner, Nathaniel Hayward, told him about mixing liquid latex with sulfur and heating it in the sun, a process that came close to producing rubber in a pliable, stable form. One morning in 1839, Goodyear took the next step: he either dropped or placed some of the sulfur-rubber concoction onto a wood burning stove, and the leather-like form that resulted was the world's first vulcanized rubber.
Goodyear left Woburn in 1842 to sell his new product in Boston and New York. Most people had long ago stopped listening to his claims. The costs and complications involved in gaining a patent delayed that critical step for five years, giving Hancock time to steal the formula and patent it in Britain. Even in the U.S., Goodyear was constantly in court to defend his patent.
Although he was hailed as a great inventor at international expositions in the 1850s, Charles Goodyear was barely solvent when he died in 1860. Accumulated royalties, however, eventually left his surviving children with enough money to enjoy the comfortable life that had largely eluded their father. When the automobile age dawned, two brothers from Ohio named their new company "Goodyear" in recognition of Charles Goodyear's contribution to the product they made rubber tires.
Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century, by Charles Slack (Theia, 2003).
Goodyear: The India Rubber Man in Woburn, by Tom Smith (Black Flag Press, 1986).