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- The Romance of Rubber - 1/5 -
Robert Rowe, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
THE ROMANCE OF RUBBER
EDITED BY JOHN MARTIN
EDITOR OF JOHN MARTIN'S BOOK THE CHILD'S MAGAZINE
PUBLISHED BY UNITED STATES RUBBER COMPANY
AN INTRODUCTORY NOTE
We have undertaken to print this booklet, telling you how rubber is grown, gathered, and then made useful, for this reason:
The United States Rubber Company, as the largest rubber manufacturer in the world, wants the coming generations of our country to have some understanding of the importance of rubber in our every day life.
We hope to interest and inform you. We believe the rubber industry will be better off if the future citizens of our country know more about it.
If you were asked, "What did Columbus discover in 1492?" you would have but one answer. But what he discovered on his second voyage is not quite so easy to say. He was looking for gold when he landed on the island of Hayti on that second trip. So his eyes were blind to the importance of a simple game which he saw being played with a ball that bounced by some half-naked Indian boys on the sand between the palm trees and the sea. Instead of the coveted gold, he took back to Europe, just as curiosities, some of the strange black balls given him by these Indian boys. He learned that the balls were made from the hardened juice of a tree.
The little boys and girls of Spain were used to playing with balls made of rags or wool, so you may imagine how these bouncing balls of the Indians must have pleased them. But the men who sent out this second expedition gave the balls little thought and certainly no value. Since Columbus brought back no gold, he was thrown into prison for debt, and he never imagined that, four hundred years later, men would turn that strange, gummy tree juice into more gold than King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and all the princes of Europe ever dreamed of.
In the next century after Columbus's travels the Portuguese founded the colony of Brazil on the continent of South America. Their settlements were near the coast and they did not begin to explore the great Amazon region for a hundred years or so. The journey down this great river--which Theodore Roosevelt took so many years later--was first made by a Portuguese missionary, who found the same kind of gummy tree juice as that of the West Indies. But the natives along the Amazon had discovered that besides being elastic it was waterproof, and they were making shoes that would keep out water. You can picture a native boy spilling some of this liquid on his foot, then covering it, as he might with a mud pie, and when it dried wiggling his toes to find that, he had the first and perhaps the best fitting gum shoe that ever was made.
Little by little samples of this new substance found their way to Europe. It was another hundred years before thoughtful men believed it worth while to investigate this gum. In 1731 the Paris Academy of Science sent some explorers to learn about it. One of these Frenchmen, La Condamine, wrote of a tree called "Hevea" [Footnote: Hevea is pronounced Hee'-vee-uh. Caoutchouc is pronounced koo'-chook.] "There flows from this tree a liquor which hardens gradually and blackens in the air." He found the people of Quito waterproofing cloth with it, and the Amazon Indians were making boots which, when blackened in smoke, looked like leather. Most interesting of all, they coated bottle-shaped moulds, and when the gum had hardened they would break the mould, shaking the pieces out of the neck, leaving an unbreakable bottle that would hold liquids.
It was not long afterwards that Lisbon began to import some of these crudely fashioned articles, and it is said that in 1755 the King of Portugal sent to Brazil several pairs of his boots to be waterproofed. A few years later the Government of Para, Brazil, sent him a full suit of rubber clothes. For all that, this elastic gum was for the most part only a curiosity, and few people knew there was such a thing.
About the year 1770, a black, bouncing ball of caoutchouc, as the Indians called the gum, after many travels found its way to England, and Priestley, the man who gave us oxygen, learned that it would rub out pencil marks. Then and there he named it what you have probably guessed long before this: "rub-ber." Nearly every language except English uses in place of the word rubber some form of the native Word "caoutchouc," which means "weeping tree." After Priestley's discovery, a one-inch "rubber" sold for three shillings, or about seventy-five cents, but artists were glad to pay even that price, because their work was made so much easier.
In 1800 Brazil was the only country manufacturing rubber articles, and her best market soon proved to be North America. Probably the first rubber this country saw was brought to New England in clipper ships as ballast in the form of crude lumps and balls. Rubber shoes, water-bottles, powder-flasks, and tobacco-pouches found buyers in the American ports, but rubber shoes were most in demand.
Soon some Americans began to import raw rubber and to manufacture rubber goods of their own, and in the old world a Scotchman named Macintosh found a way of waterproofing cloth by spreading on it a thin coating of rubber dissolved in coal naphtha. Many people still refer to raincoats as mackintoshes. Rubber clothing shared favor with rubber shoes, but its popularity was short-lived for it did not wear well and was almost as sensitive to temperature as molasses and butter. The rubber shoes and coats get hard and stiff in winter and soft and sticky in summer. A man wearing a pair of rubber overalls who sat down too near a warm stove soon found that his overalls, his chair and himself were stuck fast together. The first rubber coats became so stiff in cold weather that when you took one off you could stand it up in the middle of the floor and leave it, for it would stand like a tent until the rubber thawed out, and when thawed it was almost as uncomfortable as is fly- paper to the fly.
One day Charles Goodyear, a Connecticut hardware merchant of an inventive turn of mind, went to a store to buy a life preserver. He could find only imperfect ones, but they drew his attention to the study of rubber, and presently he was thinking of it by day and dreaming of it by night. Rubber became a passion with him. He felt sure some way could be found to make it firm yet flexible regardless of temperature, and for ten years he experimented with different mixtures and processes, hoping to find the right one. So intent was he on his search that he found time for nothing else. Due to neglect his business went to pieces and he became very poor.
Finally, in 1839, when he was on the point of giving up in despair, he accidentally came upon the solution. He was experimenting in his kitchen, a place which, through lack of funds, he was often forced to use as a laboratory. Part of a mixture of rubber, sulphur and other chemicals, with which he was working, happened to drop on the top of the stove. It lay there sizzling and charring until the odor of the burning rubber called his attention to it. As he stooped to scrape it off the stove he gave a start of wonder as he noted that a change had come over the rubber during its brief contact with the stove.
To his surprise the mixture had not melted, but had flattened out in the shape of a silver dollar. When it had cooled enough to be handled, he found that it bent and stretched easily, without cracking or breaking, and that it always snapped back to its original shape. Strangest of all, it was no longer sticky. Apparently half the problem was solved. Whether his new mixture would stand the cold he had yet to find out, so he nailed it on the outside of the door and went to bed. Probably he slept but little and was up early. At any rate he found the rubber unaffected by the cold.
Then he knew that he had made a real discovery and he named the process "vulcanizing" after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. "Vulcanizing" means mixing pure rubber with certain chemicals and then applying heat. On this process, which is by no means simple, the great rubber business of the world has been established. Practically everything made of rubber, or of which rubber is a part, has to go through the vulcanizing process, whether it is a pair of Keds, a tire, a fruit jar ring, or a doormat.
So many people had been deceived by previous rubber ventures that Goodyear had great trouble in finding anyone with enough faith to invest money in his discovery. It was some time before he was able to take out the first of the more than sixty patents which he was granted during his lifetime for applying his process to various uses. Under these patents he licensed several factories to use the process in the manufacture of rubber goods, but required them to stamp all goods with the words "Goodyear patent." Scores of companies have since used the name Goodyear, but the only factories that he licensed which are now in existence are parts of
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