Cars wouldn’t be much use without rubber. And rubber wouldn’t be much use without Charles Goodyear, who brought tree gum into the Industrial Age even as he spent much of his life deflated.
A trip from New York to his home in Philadelphia in the summer of 1834 was bookended by misery in both cities. He’d gone to New York to show a new valve for life preservers to the Roxbury India Rubber Company, America's first rubber store.
But the store manager showed Goodyear the sad state of his industry: The summer heat wave had melted the inventory into stinky paste (while tough winters, he revealed, made rubber freeze hard as rock). Goodyear was told that the shop had secretly buried $20,000 worth of the summer slop; that's how bad things were.
Philadelphia didn't hold much promise either. Goodyear was a bankrupt hardware merchant, and upon his return he was promptly thrown into debtors' prison.
But he had become so transfixed by rubber, and seen it at such extremes of heat and cold, that he thought of little else. From within jail, he asked his wife to bring him some raw rubber and her rolling pin. He spent hours with it — largely aimless — just getting to know the material better, developing a feel for when he was improving it and when he was accelerating its ruin.
It was an ugly, smelly time in his life. After his stint in jail, Goodyear’s Philly neighbors complained about the stench of his lab work, and he moved instead to a fourth-floor tenement in New York. He worked tirelessly, even as his brother-in-law would lecture him about his hungry children.
He had become so transfixed by rubber, and seen it at such extremes of heat and cold, that he thought of little else.
Doing his best to dress up his wares, he often painted them — and reused them. One day, he happened to use nitric acid to wipe bronze paint off a sample. The sample turned black and Goodyear threw it away.But that sixth sense he had developed in jail, and in his kitchen, haunted him. Something about that black scrap felt different. He rummaged it out of his trash can and got an investor keen on it.
But the nitric acid-wiped rubber disappointed. So did the sample treated with magnesium talc. And the sample treated with sulphur. And the hours and hours spent testing rubber heated to various temperatures in an oven. Finally, in an argument at a diner, he accidentally flung some rubber on a hot stovetop. He went to clean it, and he found the rubber had altered. It was Goodyear’s aha moment. Five years of tinkering later, he finally found the right formula: pressurized 270-degree steam applied to virgin rubber for four to six hours. Charles Goodyear had saved rubber from oblivion.
He turned out to be more than just an inventor; he was an evangelist. He set up pavilions at the world's fairs of London and Paris stocked entirely with rubber wares — even the pavilions themselves were rubber — telling everyone he could about the miracle material. In the decades before tires, he brought rubber to the people by weaving it into dandies' shirt ruffles. But he even went so far as to make rubber dinner plates.
While Goodyear’s stovetop epiphany has been dismissed as a lucky accident, the inventor himself dismissed that notion. People had seen apples drop before Isaac Newton. People had left cheese sandwiches out overnight before Alexander Fleming. Eureka moments, Goodyear argued, require not just the lucky moment, but also the man "whose mind was prepared to draw an inference."After all its trying, his was.