Gum rubber has been a vital resource to mankind for centuries. Also referred to as natural rubber, it is used in a vast range of products, from tiny everyday items like rubber bands to large and specialized products like airplane tires. Natural rubber product-line is so widespread that it is impossible to not come across one on any given day. The elastomer’s flexibility, resilience, and surface friction are its most notable and valuable properties. Thanks to processing techniques discovered and perfected through the ingenuity of curious chemists over the centuries, gum rubber can be produced and utilized in various forms like solvents, adhesives and natural rubber sheets.
It is no exaggeration to say that gum rubber has come a very long way. The first known uses of flexible gum rubber date back to the peak of the Mesoamerican civilizations of Central and South America. After the discovery of the Americas, rubber spread to the “old world” of Europe, making many men rich in the business of natural rubber production. Take a trip through the impressive journey natural rubber has taken:
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The History of Gum Rubber: A Timeline of Rubber's Commercialization
- ~1500 BCE – The Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization, held recreational sporting events using balls made of gum rubber. The name “Olmec” actually translates to “rubber people.” In addition, the later Mayan and Aztec civilizations would use these rubber balls not only as a sporting item, but also as currency.
- 1525 CE – Padre d’Anghieria, an Italian-Spanish explorer present in Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, was the first European to witness native tribes people playing with flexible gum rubber balls in their sporting events.
- 1736 – Charles Marie de La Condamine, a well-known French explorer and scholar, was the first European to conduct a study into the nature and properties of gum rubber. He ignited an interest for natural rubber product in France by presenting samples of the material to a scientific academy.
- 1770 – Joseph Priestly, an English chemist whose other notable achievements include the discovery of oxygen and the invention of soda water, found that the flexible gum rubber material could be used to erase pencil marks off paper. The term “rubber” stems from the material’s ability to rub off pencil marks. In Europe, among the very first popular and profitable natural rubber product were pencil erasers.
- 1783 – The famous Montgolfier brothers, pioneers in the field of hot-air balloons, held a demonstration for King Louis XVI of France involving the use of rubber. They put a sheep, a rooster, and a duck in a hot-air balloon lined with an early version of natural rubber sheets, and then sent them floating up into the air. The demonstration was a success, with the craft travelling two miles in eight minutes and landed safely.
- 1803 – The first rubber factory was established in France. It was the first factory in Europe dedicated to large-scale natural rubber production. The product they made were suspenders, a popular item in men’s fashion during the time.
- 1820 – Thomas Hancock, an English inventor credited with the founding of the British rubber industry, invented the “masticator”, a machine that shreds rubber into little pieces. Upon applying heat and pressure, he could consolidate rubber into easier-to-manage forms like natural rubber sheets. Now able to efficiently manage the material, Hancock became a natural rubber distributor to manufacturers who had sufficient demand to propel the start of the rubber industry.
- 1823 – Charles Macintosh, a Scottish industrial chemist, used a gum rubber solution to waterproof fabrics and other clothing items like gloves. He received the materials from his friend and partner, Thomas Hancock. He too went on to become a successful natural rubber distributor. In Scotland, a waterproof raincoat is commonly referred to as a “Mackintosh”.
- 1839 – American inventor Charles Goodyear discovered the process of vulcanization after accidentally leaving a mix of gum rubber, sulfur and white lead on a stove. This cured the rubber and allowed it to maintain its stability through a range of temperatures. The process became vital for producing high-quality natural rubber sheets.
- 1876 – The British, under the supervision of Henry Wickham, smuggled Hevea brasiliensis tree seeds from Brazil to England to be planted in the Kew Gardens. The seeds were then sent to Far East countries like Singapore and Malaysia to be grown on plantations, countries that just happened to be British colonies. The British, hungry for more natural rubber product, did not want to rely on dealing with the inefficient Brazilian rubber market and wanted to produce rubber on their own. Today, Malaysia is the largest natural rubber distributor and a large part of the Malaysian economy is reliant on natural rubber production.
- 1846 – Robert William Thomson invented and patented the first inflatable rubber tire. He used hollowed out natural rubber sheets that he inflated with air. He received a patent for the product from France in 1846 and from the US in 1847.
- 1887 – John Dunlop applied the use of the inflatable tire to bicycles. This was revolutionary in the field of transportation and gave birth to the bicycle industry as we know it. Tires for bicycles accounted for a good chunk of Britain’s early natural rubber production. Even today, bicycle tires are commonplace natural rubber product.
- 1897 – The British botanist Henry Ridley found a method to tap rubber trees more efficiently without seriously damaging the tree itself. He was a strong proponent of using gum rubber as a commercial product. He became a big natural rubber distributor in the Malay Peninsula. His method is still used today.
By the 1900s, gum rubber was being manufactured commercially worldwide. As the automobile industry grew, so to did natural rubber production. Around the time of the two world wars, synthetic rubber began to see more and more use in more intense industrial applications. Still, natural rubber never went obsolete. Every country still has a need for natural rubber product. Many individuals realized the endless potential and set out to explore more uses for the flexible gum rubber material. Although new and inventive uses for natural rubber are nearly exhausted, the gum rubber is still an extremely valuable material many centuries after its first discovery.