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The History of Rubber
Oct 18, 2018

The history of rubber begins with the Olmecs, a Mesoamerican indigenous culture, who took the latex which they found from native trees, boiled it, and used in a ballgame similar to today’s games basketball and football; this was the first documented use of rubber. Since then, rubber has been used in numerous industries for an even larger amount of applications. With both natural and artificial rubbers being readily available, the rubber supply the world over is plentiful; but it was not always that way. When natural rubber was not available during the first half of the twentieth century, nations needed a source for bulk rubber for the many industries that used the material, especially to make tires and parts of military vehicles that were being produced at the time. Thus came the rise of artificial elastomers, which have dominated the rubber market for decades; by the looks of things, they will continue to do so for decades to come. A rubber companies like Firestone and Goodyear were started at this time. For example, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company is an American tire company founded by Harvey Firestone in 1900 to supply pneumatic tires for wagons and buggies.

The tree from which the Olmecs harvested the latex necessary to make their balls is called the Hevea brasiliensis, and it was originally found only in South America, in areas near the tropics. These areas, on both of the planet’s hemispheres are sometimes referred to as the “Rubber Belt.” It was discovered that when the tree was “wounded,” (meaning it is incised or cut open), that it secreted an oozy material to heal itself. The material which it secreted was the latex that was used for the ball and was the first source for the natural rubber supply. While the Olmecs merely boiled it, there are a number of more complicated processes involved in creating bulk rubber which can be utilized in multiple industries for numerous functions.

Natural rubber remained unique to South America until French explorer and geographer by the name of Charles Marie de la Condamine decided to introduce samples of rubber to the French Royal Academy of Sciences in 1736. Somewhat later, a British explorer by the name of Henry Wickham allegedly stole 70,000 seeds of the Hevea brasiliensis and transported them over to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England to be planted. The seeds were also sent Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Today, these Southeast Asian plantations are far more successful that the ones which are located in South America. Much later on, these areas became independent and made free of British control, which would prove to be unfortunate in the decade to follow. America’s automotive and rubber companies also tried their hand at farming rubber!

The story of “Fordlandia” speaks of American rubber companies’ desire to control their sources of raw materials. Henry Ford didn't just want to be a maker of cars — he wanted to be a maker of men. And he was pretty successful at it in Michigan. But in the jungles of Brazil, he would ultimately be defeated. It was 1927. Ford wanted his own supply of rubber — and he decided to get it by carving a plantation and a miniature Midwest factory town out of the Amazon jungle. It was called "Fordlandia." Ford never really became a rubber company—or at least not one that managed plantations. The next to try to behave as monopolistic rubber company were nation states during World War II!

During World War II, when Britain and the Allies fought against Japan and the other members of the Axis, the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia were under Japanese control, decimating the rubber supply for these nations. As a result, the exportation of rubber to Allied nations was halted, leaving these nations desperate for an alternative to fulfill their needs for bulk rubber that had previously been obtained from natural latex. The rubber was much needed for the many vehicles that were being produced for the war, such as tanks. It was during this time that research began to create a rubber alternative, a new substance that would mirror the physical characteristics of natural rubber, if not match them chemically as well. When scientists began searching for a material that simply shared physical properties with rubber, instead of a material that was nearly identical to it chemically, they became successful, finding the compound butadiene to be useful for their needs. The first suitable polymer of rubber, made from styrene and butadiene, was synthesized at I.G. Farben in the Society Union; it was called SBR (styrene-butadiene rubber). While other substitutes had been created beforehand, this was the first that would be suitable for use in tires, which is what was truly important at the time. Synthetic rubber is created through the process of polymerization, and uses additives to achieve the desired properties of rubber.

By the year 1964, 75% of all rubber that was produced was synthetically. America’s rubber companies are at the forefront of synthetic rubber production and the number has been on the rise since! And while man-made elastomers are leading the market, we must not forget the humble history of rubber that began with natural products made with simple processes. Had man not looked past nature and decided to take the rubber supply into his own hands, we may never have been able to produce the amounts of bulk rubber that we need for use in a large amount of applications today. Perhaps the tide of history has finally turned and it may be that the fastest growing share of marketplace belongs to recycled rubber companies!