Natural rubber products are undoubtedly a part of our everyday life and can be seen in applications across a number of industries, including some you may have never even thought about. Also known as gum rubber, it is a substance which is heavily desired because of its favorable physical properties and the potential to be improved upon chemically so that it will become even more useful, such as to be made into a pure gum rubber sheet which themselves have a number of industrial and commercial uses. Pure gum rubber sheet is the modern industrialized variety that is now popular in sealing applications. The history of natural rubber has seen is the evolution of a product that was originally used primitively and only for simple functions. The “rubber ball” of the Aztecs has morphed into a product that is used in modern industries such as aerospace, automotive, transportation, and petroleum industries. With continued research and advances in technology, we can be sure to find the uses of natural rubber to expand alongside these things. But just as important as looking forward, it is imperative that we look back so that we may see for ourselves the development of a product and an industry alongside it. That being said, here is a brief history of natural rubber:
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- Mesoamerican Rubber Ball: Rubber was first used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin in South America. It is known popularly that gum rubber, obtained from the tree Hevea brasiliensis, was boiled and turned into a ball for an early Mesoamerican game. The tree secretes a latex material whenever it is cut as a part of its natural healing process.
A Brief Outline of the History of Natural Rubber
- Rubber Deconstructed: In 1736, a French explorer by the name of Charles Marie de la Condamine brought samples of rubber to the Royal Academy of Sciences in France. A few years later, in 1751, he presented the first scientific paper written about rubber (written by Francois Fresneau) to the Academy. It covered the properties of rubber.
- Rubbery Nature: In England, Joseph Priestly, in 1770, discovered that a piece of the material could “rub” away pencil marks from paper. Thus, the material was given its name and the eraser became one of the first natural rubber products. We assume that either “rub-away” or rubber was coined from the term. We are not sure which is the chicken or the egg!
- Rubber Meets American Industry: In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered that by adding sulfur to rubber, it would become sort of like leather yet maintain its elastic properties, making for a more useful product. This process was later refined and given the name vulcanization. This process would aid in the creation of industrially-purposed items such as the pure gum rubber sheet.
- The Thieve of Kew Garden! In 1876, a writer and explorer by the name of Henry Wickham allegedly smuggled 70,000 seeds of the Para rubber tree and brought to Kew Gardens, England, to be germinated. The seeds were then dispersed to colonies of the British Empire, such as present-day Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore, and present-day Malaysia. Malaysia would later become the largest producer of natural rubber.
- New Plantations: In the early twentieth century, countries in Africa began their production, such as the Free State of Congo, Liberia, and Nigeria. With vast land resources and a growing number of small farms, Africa could be the new face of natural rubber production.
- Ford’s Ego: In 1928, American automobile mogul and industrialist Henry Ford attempted to secure for himself and his company, the Ford Motor Company, a source of cultivated rubber in the Amazon Rainforest for automobile manufacturing operations. Fordlandia was located near Santarem, Brazil. The land was exchanged to Ford for a promise of 9% of all profits made. Ultimately though, the project was a failure on its own accord. Ford had thought that the same industrial approach used in the US could succeed in South America. He was wrong! Especially due to the discovery of synthetic rubber, which decreased the demand for natural rubber, Fordlandia was abandoned to the Amazon. This was not Ford’s first misguided assessment of other cultures or religions.
- World War II: During World War II, when rubber plantations in Southeast Asian were being occupied by Japan, and exportation of rubber to Allied countries was halted, the search began for an alternative to natural rubber. The material was needed for tires, hoses, belts, gaskets, wiring, and valves; the majority of all manufacturing was being directed towards the war effort. And thus, with sources of natural rubber being scarce, scientists looked to create something which would exhibit all of rubber’s properties. By 1945, a suitable artificial product had been developed.
- Loss of Market: By 1964, synthetic rubber made up 75% of the market. Creation of this product was highly dependent on oil production, prices, and trade. Since oil prices had been relatively stable and not controlled by the oil producers, synthetics thrived!
- Arab Oil Embargo: In 1973, there was an oil embargo which doubled the price of synthetic rubber. Also, a new tire (the “radial”) was developed around this time and replaced previous tires which used mostly synthetic rubber. The new tire required natural rubber in order to be made properly, and thus, the demand for natural rubber increased again.
- The Recent Past: By 1993, natural rubber made up for almost 40% of the market once again. Today, automobile tires are made up of 50% natural rubber, and aircraft tires are made of 100% natural rubber. The large majority of this rubber is imported from Southeast Asia, making it highly vulnerable to embargo or biological issues in these overseas plantations.
Though it is hard to offer a concise history of natural rubber, we should know that it future is not commodified. Natural rubber prices are not only dependent on their own production inputs, but also competitive products made from petroleum. It is clear that gum rubber has been an integral part of numerous societies for many generations. There are an abundance of natural rubber products on the market today that are sure to make your life easier and more efficient, such as a pure gum rubber sheet that itself can be used for various different applications like you window cleaners squeegee or the blade on the Zamboni machine that cleans the ice during hockey game. You should feel free to do your own investigation into rubber’s long history and discover for yourself the ways in which you use it in your everyday life.