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Home > Timeline > 1519 - 1818 > Charles Goodyear

This picture of Charles Goodyear was painted on a
sheet of hard rubber (ebonite) by GPA Healey in Paris in 1855,
the year of the Paris Exhibition…

Born: 29 December 1800 in New Haven, Connecticut.

Died: 1 July 1860 in New York.

Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut . He entered the hardware business with his father but the venture failed in 1830. In the summer of 1834 he walked into the New York retail store of the Roxbury India Rubber Co., America's first rubber manufacturer and showed the manager a new valve he had devised but the manager shook his head sadly. The company wasn't in the market for valves now and it would be lucky to stay in business at all. He showed Goodyear racks of rubber goods which had melted to a stinking gum in the heat. Goodyear disappointedly pocketed the valve and took his first good look at rubber. He experienced a sudden curiosity and wonder about this mysterious material. "There is probably no other inert substance," he said later, "which so excites the mind."

Returning to Philadelphia, Goodyear was clapped into jail for debt. Whilst there he asked his wife to bring him a batch of raw rubber and her rolling pin. In his cell, Goodyear worked his first rubber experiments. If rubber was naturally adhesive, he reasoned, why couldn't a dry powder be mixed with it to absorb its stickiness - perhaps talc or magnesia? Once out of jail, he, his wife and small daughters made up several hundred pairs of magnesia- filled rubber overshoes in their kitchen but before he could market them summer came and he watched them sag into shapeless lumps.

He then moved his experiments to New York where a friend gave him a spare bedroom for his "laboratory." He was now adding two drying agents to his rubber, magnesia and quicklime, and improving the product all the time. He had now turned to decorating and painting his shoes to hide the sticky surface and one day he decided to re-paint an old decorated sample so he applied nitric acid to remove its bronze paint. The piece turned black and Goodyear discarded it. A few days later he found it again and realised that the nitric acid had done something to the rubber, making it smooth and no longer sticky. The timing of this discovery was poor; the financial panic of 1837 promptly wiped out his business and again he was destitute.

Soon after this came a pivotal event in his life; he met Nathaniel Hayward. Hayward had discovered that treating thin rubber sheets with a solution of sulphur in turpentine and exposing it to sunlight (Solarisation) “causes the gum to dry more perfectly and to improve the whole substance thereof” and this he patented (USP1090) in November 1838. Goodyear realised that this process could offer a considerable improvement in properties to his rubber goods and rubberized fabrics so he purchased the rights under the patent. Goodyear, rubber and sulphur had joined together.

He had, however, in hand a government contract for 150 mailbags, to be manufactured by the process which involved treating the rubber with nitric acid. After making the bags at Hayward’s old factory in East Woburn, Mass. he relaxed and took his family on vacation. When he returned, the mailbags had melted to a sticky gum!

It was now 1839 and Goodyear pressed on using sulphur in his experiments as a ‘drying agent’. One day, some of his mix fell onto a hot stove. When scraped it off, he found that it had charred but around the charred area was a flexible material which he called "gum elastic" (or perhaps the truth is somewhat different!). He had made what today we call vulcanized rubber. But now he was very ill and had only the first step of his great invention. He knew that heat and sulphur miraculously changed rubber but how much heat was needed and for how long? He experimented with hot sand, flatirons, boiling water and everything he could think of until, at last, he decided that steam under pressure, applied for four to six hours at around 130°C, gave him the best results.

He wrote to his wealthy brother-in-law in New York who was very interested when Goodyear told him that his new material would be ideal for rubber threads to interweave with fabric thread to give the fashionable puckered effect which was then much in demand for men's shirts. Two "shirred goods" factories were rushed into production and life looked up. Unfortunately for his family, Goodyear was not interested in money and rapidly disposed of the manufacturing interests which might have made him a millionaire and went back to his experiments. His business acumen was terrible; for instance he obtained 3 cents per yard for shirred-goods; the licensees making $3 a yard. He was forced to fight 32 infringement cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court but was slow in filing foreign patent applications. Through Stephen Moulton he sent samples of his heat-and-sulphur-treated gum to British rubber companies without revealing details of their composition in the hope of selling manufacturing licences. One of these was seen by the English rubber pioneer, Thomas Hancock. Hancock saw a sulphur bloom on Goodyear sample's surface and, with that clue, he managed to make vulcanized rubber in 1843, four years after Goodyear. By the time Goodyear applied for an English patent he found that Hancock had filed one a few weeks earlier.

Goodyear staged magnificent displays or rubber and hard rubber (vulcanite or ebonite) at the London and Paris exhibitions in the 1850s but, whilst in France, his French patent was cancelled and his French royalties stopped leaving him with outstanding bills he could not settle. Inevitably he was hustled off to a debtors' prison. There he received the Cross of the Legion of Honour, bestowed by Emperor Napoleon III.

When he died, in 1860, he was $200,000 in debt. Eventually, however, accumulated royalties eventually made his family comfortable and his son Charles Jr. later made a fortune manufacturing shoemaking machinery.