Today is the birthday (1800) of Charles Goodyear who was a self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer who developed vulcanized rubber, for which he received patent number 3633 from the United States Patent Office in 1844. Although Goodyear can be credited with the development of a specific process for vulcanizing rubber, he was far from the first person to invent a method for using rubber in stable form. Ancient Mesoamericans used stabilized rubber for balls and other objects as early as 1600 BCE.
Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Amasa Goodyear, and the oldest of six children. His father was a descendant of Stephen Goodyear of London, one of the founders of the colony of New Haven in 1638. In 1814, Charles left his home and went to Philadelphia to learn the hardware business. He worked industriously until he was twenty-one years old, and then, returning to Connecticut, entered into partnership in his father’s business in Naugatuck, CT where they manufactured not only ivory and metal buttons, but also a variety of agricultural implements.
In August 3, 1824 he married Clarissa Beecher. Two years later the family moved to Philadelphia, and there Charles Goodyear opened a hardware store. This is where he did most of his work. His specialties were the agricultural implements that his firm had been manufacturing, and after the initial distrust of domestically made goods had faded — all agricultural implements were imported from England at that time—he was able to create a successful business for a while although it ultimately failed and his health broke down.
Between the years 1831 and 1832, Goodyear began investigating what was called “gum elastic” (natural rubber). The Roxbury Rubber Company, of Boston, had been for some time experimenting with the gum, and believed it had found means for manufacturing goods from it. It had a large plant and was sending its goods all over the country. It was some of Roxbury’s goods that first attracted Goodyear’s attention. Soon after this, Goodyear visited New York, and his attention went to life preservers, and it struck him that the tube used for inflation was not very effective nor well-made. Therefore, upon returning to Philadelphia, he made tubes and brought them back to New York and showed them to the manager of the Roxbury Rubber Company.
The manager was pleased with the ingenuity that Goodyear had shown in manufacturing the tubes. He confessed to Goodyear that the business was on the verge of ruin, and that his products had to be tested for a year before it could be determined if they were perfect or not. To their surprise, thousands of dollars worth of goods that they had determined to be of good quality were being returned, the gum having rotted, making them useless. Goodyear at once made up his mind to experiment on this gum and see if he could overcome the problems with these rubber products.
However, when he returned to Philadelphia, a creditor had him arrested and imprisoned. While there, he tried his first experiments with India rubber. The gum was inexpensive then, and by heating it and working it in his hands, he managed to incorporate in it a certain amount of magnesia which produced a beautiful white compound and appeared to take away the stickiness. He thought he had discovered the secret, and through the kindness of friends was able to improve his invention in New Haven. The first thing that he made was shoes, and he used his own house for grinding, calendering and vulcanizing, with the help of his wife and children. His compound at this time consisted of India rubber, lampblack, and magnesia, the whole dissolved in turpentine and spread upon the flannel cloth which served as the lining for the shoes. It was not long, however, before he discovered that the gum, even treated this way, became sticky. His creditors, completely discouraged, decided that he would not be allowed to go further in his research.
Goodyear, however, had no intention of stopping his experiments. He sold his furniture and placed his family in a boarding house, and then went to New York and in an attic, helped by a friendly druggist, continued his experiments. His next step was to compound the rubber with magnesia and then boil it in quicklime (calcium oxide) and water. This appeared to solve the problem. Almost at once he received international acclaim for this innovation and he seemed on the road to success, until one day he noticed that a drop of weak acid, falling on the cloth, neutralized the alkali and immediately caused the rubber to become soft again. This proved to him that his process was not yet completely successful. He therefore continued experimenting, and after preparing his mixtures in his attic in New York, would walk three miles to a mill in Greenwich Village to try various experiments.
In the line of these, he discovered that rubber dipped in nitric acid formed a surface cure, and he made many products with this acid cure which were held in high regard, and he even received a letter of commendation from Andrew Jackson. Exposure to harsh chemicals, such as nitric acid and lead oxide, adversely affected his health, and once nearly suffocated him by gas generated in his laboratory. Goodyear survived, but the resulting fever came close to taking his life.
Together with an old business partner, he built up a factory and began to make clothing, life preservers, rubber shoes, and a great variety of rubber goods. They also had a large factory with special machinery, built on Staten Island, where he moved his family and again had a home of his own. Just about this time, when everything looked bright, the panic of 1837 came and swept away the entire fortune of his associate and left Goodyear penniless.
His next move was to go to Boston, where he became acquainted with J. Haskins, of the Roxbury Rubber Company. Goodyear found in him a good friend, who lent him money and stood by him when no one would have anything to do with him. He was also assisted by a Mr. Chaffee who not only lent a kindly ear (and money), but also helped resolve a problem that Goodyear had with the solvent he was using by inventing a machine for doing the mixing of the rubber and chemicals.
Goodyear used this new method for making rubber shoes and received a patent which he sold to the Providence Company in Rhode Island. However, a method had not yet been found to process rubber so that it would withstand hot and cold temperatures and acids, and, in consequence, the rubber goods were constantly growing sticky, decomposing and being returned to the manufacturers.
Several years earlier, Goodyear had, however, started a small factory at Springfield, Massachusetts, to which he moved his primary operations in 1842. The factory was run largely by Nelson and Henry Goodyear, Charles’ brothers with financial backing from Goodyear’s brother-in-law, who was a wealthy woolen manufacturer. The work of making the use of rubber practical continued. In 1844, in Springfield, the process was sufficiently perfected that Goodyear felt it safe to take out a patent. The first vulcanization of rubber is considered one of the major “firsts” that contributes to the City of Springfield’s nickname, “The City of Firsts.” In 1844, Goodyear’s brother Henry introduced another mechanical mixing process in place of the use of solvents.
In the year 1852 Goodyear went to Europe, a trip that he had long planned, and saw Thomas Hancock, then in the employ of Charles Macintosh & Company. Hancock claimed to have invented vulcanization independently, and received a British patent, initiated in 1843, but finalized in 1844. In 1855, in the last of three patent disputes with fellow British rubber pioneer, Stephen Moulton, Hancock’s patent was challenged with the claim that Hancock had copied Goodyear. Goodyear attended the trial. If Hancock lost, Goodyear stood to have his own British patent application granted, allowing him to claim royalties from both Hancock and Moulton. Both had examined Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber in 1842, but several chemists testified that it would not have been possible to determine how it was made by studying it. Hancock prevailed.
Despite his misfortune with patents, Goodyear wrote, “In reflecting upon the past, as relates to these branches of industry, the writer is not disposed to repine, and say that he has planted, and others have gathered the fruits. The advantages of a career in life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents, as is too often done. Man has just cause for regret when he sows and no one reaps.”
Goodyear died on July 1, 1860, while traveling to see his dying daughter. After arriving in New York, he was informed that she had already died. He collapsed and was taken to the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City, where he died at the age of 59. He is buried in New Haven at Grove Street Cemetery. In 1898, almost four decades after his death, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was founded and named after Goodyear by Frank Seiberling.
Rubber used to be common for kitchen utensils but it is now mostly replaced with various rubber-like synthetics. My rubber spatula has always been an indispensible tool when dumping doughy ingredients from a bowl to a cooking vessel, for example, because its flexibility ensures that nothing is wasted. Much to my constant and instant regret, I don’t use rubber gloves enough (i.e. at all) when I am cutting up hot peppers. You’d think I’d learn. I’ve had a few rubber moulds that I thought would be great because of their flexibility in unmoulding, but in actual experience rigid moulds are better (for me).
Thinking about rubber spatulas puts me in mind of cake recipes, and Goodyear’s home of Connecticut reminds me of a favorite Connecticut cake recipe: election cake. It’s unusual in that yeast is the rising agent. Folklore has it that the cake was originally made for election day in 18th century Connecticut as a special treat because holidays such as Christmas were outlawed by the Puritans, yet people still wanted celebratory occasions. I’m skeptical, but it’s a good cake. This recipe comes from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book (1844). The quantities are typically large for period recipes. I would halve it and make two cakes.
Old Harford Election Cake
Five pounds dried and sifted flour.
Two pounds of butter.
Two pounds of sugar.
Three gills of distillery yeast, or twice the quantity of home-brewed.
A gill of wine and a gill of brandy.
Half an ounce of nutmegs, and two pounds of fruit.
A quart of milk.
Rub the butter very fine into the flour, add half the sugar, then the yeast, then half the milk, hot in winter, and blood warm in summer, then the eggs well beaten, the wine, and the remainder of the milk. Beat it well, and let it stand to rise all night. Beat it well in the morning, adding the brandy, the sugar, and the spice. Let it rise three or four hours, till very light. When you put the wood into the oven, put the cake in buttered pans, and put in the fruit as directed previously. If you wish it richer, add a pound of citron.