Vulcanized Rubber


graphic of Goodyear

Another “accident” that has changed the lives of everyone is the vulcanization of rubber, discovered by Charles Goodyear (1800-1860). Natural rubber (at this time imported cheaply from India) was sticky, became almost runny on a hot day, and became hard on a cold day.


Although Goodyear had some success in manufacturing and business, a lot of bad luck, and probably an incessant inventive streak kept him and his family in extreme poverty. You may find it strange that Goodyear actually never made a tire, although this should be no surprise as you’ll notice he died several decades before the first automobile was invented.


After Goodyear became interested in rubber, it would seem he spent most of his time trying to overcome the problems with it. He tried various chemical and physical treatments and had moderate success. The details of his work were published by Goodyear in the book Gum Elastic and Its Varieties, with a detailed account of its application and uses and of the Discovery of Vulcanization, but what makes him the namesake of a tire manufacturing company is his discovery of the vulcanization of rubber utilizing sulfur and heat.


He got the idea of using sulfur from Nathaniel Hayward but sulfur alone did not solve the problem. Somehow he determined that it was sulfur and heat that was needed. This detail was not provided in his book, so some have speculated that he was working with the rubber and sulfur over a flame and singed the mixture, others think he accidentally dropped some on his hot stove. Regardless Goodyear noticed that heating the mixture gave the qualities he was looking for. Unfortunately, he died before seeing a large monetary profit from his discovery.

Today his legacy remains not only in a tire business bearing his name but also in the myriad of products that were eventually manufactured from vulcanized rubber. Although rubber products today are more chemically sophisticated, one has to ask if things like automobiles and running shoes would even exist without rubber tires and rubber souls.