When you hear the name “Goodyear” – you think about tires, racing, the blimp!
What you may not know is that Charles Goodyear suffered from poverty his entire life, came up with the idea of vulcanized rubber by accident and conducted early experiments with rubber…in prison.
Intrigued and want to learn more? Us too. Let’s dive in.
In the year 1800, Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut. He was the son of Amasa Goodyear and Cynthia Bateman. Charles was the oldest of six children. His intelligent, generous and religious minded father, Amasa, was quite proud of being a descendant of Stephen Goodyear, one of the founders of the New England settlement of New Haven in 1638.
Amasa Goodyear led the way in the manufacture of American hardware inventing and selling agricultural tools like manure hay forks and scythes. His metal-ware business also included military buttons, spoons and clocks that engaged him in commercial ventures involving trade with West Indies. One of the most successful products invented by Amasa was a tough yet flexible steel fork. He patented the tool and branded it “A. Goodyear & Sons.”
When Charles was seven, his father bought a patent for manufacturing buttons and relocated 18 miles north of New Haven to Naugatuck village to make use of the water-power. From here, he was the first to begin a business of manufacturing pearl buttons in 1807. Amasa soon bought a nearby farm and young Charles would divide his time between the farm and the business to assist his father, often skipping Yale University’s public school in Naugatuck that he attended.
In 1816, Goodyear, 16, went to Philadelphia after completing his school education, and was placed by his father as an apprentice in the store of Rogers and Brothers to learn the hardware business. He never completed higher studies, but at the workplace, Goodyear worked productively and diligently.
Armed with valuable experience, in 1821 at the age of 21, Goodyear returned to Connecticut and joined his father’s hardware business as a partner. For the next five years, Charles worked and helped in building up the family business. Under the name Amasa Goodyear & Son, they manufactured a variety of metal-based items, ivory buttons, farming tools and machinery.
In August 1824, at the age of 24, Charles married Clarissa Beecher. Observing that his father’s patented steel fork gave them good business, two years later, Charles moved to Philadelphia with his wife and established the first general retail hardware store in America. The store sold the steel fork and other farm tools.
The business flourished and over a span of few years, the couple had five children – four daughters, Ellen, Cynthia, Amelia and Amy, and one son, Charles Jr. By 1829, Charles was a wealthy man who spent peaceful days with his family in Philadelphia.
Towards the end of the year 1829, Charles was attacked repeatedly with dyspepsia. This illness was the beginning of his health deterioration, often confining him to bed. By this time, his business too received a setback; because he gave goods on easy credits, he faced extensive losses from customers who refused to pay up. By 1830, Charles and his father were bankrupt the business had to be shut down.
Goodyear decided to go back to inventing. He worked to find better alternatives for things like air pumps, faucets, spoons, etc. In the early 1830s, he began noticing a steady development in the rubber market as it grew. He then carefully began following every news report related to this new material and its products.
An unusual opportunity
In midsummer of 1834, Goodyear walked into the New York retail store of the Roxbury India Rubber Co., America’s first rubber manufacturer. He showed the store manager a new valve he had devised for rubber life preservers. The manager looked at the valve and told Goodyear the company wasn’t in the market for valves now. In fact, it would be lucky to stay in business at all.
To learn why, let’s take a quick look at the rubber industry…
Natural rubber is an elastomer, also known as tree gum, India rubber and caoutchouc, which comes from the rubber tree in tropical regions. Portuguese settlers of South America were the first to use this white, milky substance they called India rubber, and turn it into useful articles like garments, shoes, boots, etc. This dense waterproof material proved to be a valuable deference against the rains. Due to the gum’s practical use of erasing lead pencil marks from paper, it was also simply known as “rubber.”
The Industrial Revolution in Europe led to demand for uses that natural rubber could satisfy. It was a desirable commodity, valued at a high price, and thought to create wealth and dividends for whoever would dare invest in the trade.
As the trees producing the gum elastic rubber grew in the Torrid Zone, bottles of it were prepared by the indigenous Indians of Brazil and imported to Europe and North America. The Indians, especially those living in the region of Para near the Amazon River, supplied the bottles and the substance became known as India rubber. Para also exported around 300,000 pairs of India rubber shoes in the 1820s.
When Americans found that the gummy raw material in New England was good enough to make rubber shoes, the rubber enterprise began amidst tremendous speculation in early 1830s. Several large stores like the most famous Roxbury India Rubber Company of Boston began manufacturing and selling a variety of rubber goods across the country.
While rubber was very popular, the material itself had strong disadvantages. At room temperature, rubber was sticky, and at higher temperatures, it became softer and stickier. At lower temperatures, rubber became hard and rigid. The versatile nature of rubber lead to the early demise of many of the young rubber companies. Investors lost millions. Rubber, everyone agreed, was through in America.
Now, let’s go back to Goodyear’s visit to the Roxbury India retail store…
After giving Goodyear a resounding “no” to his life preserver valve, the manager showed Goodyear why. In the store were racks upon racks of rubber goods which had been melted to badly smelling glue by the hot weather. He went on to confide to Goodyear that in the company’s factory at Roxbury, Mass., thousands of melted rubber articles were being returned by outraged customers.
Instead of viewing this horrific industry downturn as a failure, Goodyear saw it as an opportunity. He had played with bits of rubber 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.”
Goodyear decided to research a method for improving rubber. Despite the fact that he lived in extreme poverty and was sent to debtors’ prison several times for being unable to meet his obligations, Goodyear relentlessly persisted with his research.
In 1834, while in prison, he asked his wife to bring him a batch of raw rubber and a rolling pin to start his first set of experiments. If 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? Once we was released from prison, he tried this method and achieved promising results.
Excited by this small measure of success, he asked a childhood friend to invest some money in his venture. Upon receiving the funding, Goodyear, along with his wife and kids, made several hundred pairs of magnesia-dried rubber shoes on their family kitchen floor. Unfortunately, before they could finish, the weather turned hot and all the shoes melted.
Goodyear persisted and even moved out of his house and into an apartment in New York after his neighbors complained about the strong odor resulting from his experiments. Many family members tried to convince him that rubber was never going to make a comeback but Goodyear simply replied…
“I am the man to bring it back.”
He added two drying agents to his rubber, magnesia and quicklime, then boiled the mixture and got a better product. A 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 once again, Goodyear and his family camped in the abandoned rubber factory on Staten Island, living on fish he caught in the harbor.
In time, Goodyear got new backing in Boston and again seesawed to momentary prosperity. His partners wrangled 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 had melted. Underneath their “dry-as-cloth” surface lay the same old sticky gum.
After 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.
An accidental discovery
The great discovery came in the winter of 1839. Goodyear had started using sulfur in his experiments. It is said that one February day, he wandered into Woburn’s general store to show off his latest gum-and-sulfur formula. Customers snickered at the presentation and Goodyear, usually mild-mannered, got excited and waved his sticky fistful of gum in the air. It flew from his fingers and landed on the sizzling-hot potbellied stove.
When 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, but he still had a long way to go to understand and perfect the process.
Dark times and a discovery
The winter after Goodyear’s discovery was the blackest of his life. Dyspeptic and gout-racked, he hobbled about his experiments on crutches. He knew now that heat and sulfur 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 tea kettle and pressed them between hot irons. When his long-suffering wife took her bread from the oven, he thrust in chunks of evil-smelling gum.
After many horrific trials and tribulations in not only his experiments, but his life including the death of his infant son, at last Goodyear found the solution: 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 of his discovery. His brother-in-law expressed significant interest when Goodyear 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 rubber rode to worldwide success, but Goodyear didn’t stop there.
He invented the rubber water-bed used in army hospitals. Rubber wear became popular as it could shield people and protect them from winter and rain. It also gained importance in the electrical industry, since it was a bad electrical conductor. He crafted all imaginable rubber products such as cutlery set with India rubber handles, jewelry, musical instruments, book covers and India rubber floor tiles.
Goodyear carried a rubber purse and wore a rubber hat. His business cards, nameplate and autobiography were made and bound in rubber. Everywhere his creative mind tried to replace leather, so he made army tents, blankets, gun cover, ponchos, wagon covers, pontoons, lifeboats and more.
The patenting process
Since Europe led the industrial era by dominating markets in manufacturing and research, even before filing his American patent, Charles sent specimens overseas to Europe in 1842 to attract British financiers, without divulging its manufacturing details.
Ten years had elapsed since Goodyear had begun his great work. After spending almost $50,000 in development, he finally received his most important American patent for vulcanized rubber on June 15, 1844.
By the time Goodyear applied for his English patent, it became known that Hancock had claimed his first right in inventing the ‘vulcanization’ process and had applied just eight weeks earlier than Goodyear in November 1843. Hancock, a pioneer of rubber goods in Britain since it first appeared in Europe in the 1820s, had examined Goodyear’s early samples sent to Europe for testing and mimicked his sulfur process. Goodyear sued.
Hancock tried to steal Goodyear’s reputation and even blocked his attempts to receive the English patent. Later, Hancock offered Goodyear half a share of the English patent to withdraw his suit, which Goodyear refused, albeit unwisely. Hancock received his English patent in 1844, while in the following few years, Charles received patents in most European countries except England.
Charles fought legally for around seven years to protect his valuable patents and rightful claim to inventing the ‘vulcanisation’ process. He faced the impediments in his path by saying…
“Don’t be seeing all the difficulties that may possibly occur. If it is to be done it must be done, and it will be done.”
Overall, he received 60 patents for the application of his vulcanization process covering the manufacturing of various products such as condoms, intrauterine devices, syringes and diaphragms.
The rebirth of rubber
The rubber industry, almost non-existent a decade back, had regained a new lease of life by 1845. It was flourishing due to the unrelenting efforts of Goodyear, now leading a much easier life in New Haven. Devoted to his undertaking, Charles envisioned that every human being should be able to derive the benefits of the various uses of rubber, which were meant for all times.
Goodyear died at the age of 59 on July 1, 1860, as the morning bells rang for church service on Sunday. It was only after his death that his wife and children began to earn sufficient money from the royalties of his patents. In 1898, 38 years after Charles Goodyear’s death, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was named after him. Frank Seiberling was the founder of the company which has its head office in Akron, Ohio and is now the world’s largest rubber business.
In February of 1976, Goodyear was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Today 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.
Despite all his hardships, Goodyear persisted. Even though he was not around to see the tremendous success of his efforts, his persistence paid off. We hope his story inspired you, your efforts and maybe even a new idea.
“If you fail once, do not be disheartened and don’t give up, but keep trying and success can be yours one day.”