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British Industrial History

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Charles Goodyear (USA)

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Charles Goodyear (1800-1860)

1834 Charles Goodyear was a hardware merchant in Philadelphia. After becoming bankrupt, he offered a valve he had devised for rubber life preservers to the New York shop of the Roxbury India Rubber Co., America's first rubber manufacturer. However, the company wasn’t interested in valves. In fact it was facing ruin because many of its rubber products were being returned by angry customers, who had found the hot weather had affected the stability of their rubber goods.

This led Goodyear to make his first experiments with rubber additives; he tried adding two drying agents to his rubber, magnesia and quicklime, then boiling the mixture. A New York trade show awarded him a medal for his achievement.

By chance he found that nitric acid made rubber almost as smooth and dry as cloth. This was better than anyone had ever done before but was still not a robust answer to the problem of making a reliable rubber product.

1839 Goodyear's great discovery came in the winter of 1839. He was using sulphur in his experiments and applied heat making a weatherproof rubber. This discovery is often cited as one of history’s most celebrated "accidents," something Goodyear stoutly contested. But the identification of the robust process took much further experimentation.

The product was first put to use in his brother-in-law's shirt factory.

Goodyear experimented with many different applications, some of which came to fruition soon, others not for much longer. Goodyear's licencing deals were often not very remunerative and he often had to contest infringements of his patents.

He sent samples of his heat-and-sulphur-treated gum to British rubber companies without revealing details. One sample was seen by Thomas Hancock, who had been trying for 20 years to make weatherproof rubber. Hancock noticed a yellowish sulphur bloom on the Goodyear sample’s surface. With that clue, he reinvented vulcanized rubber in 1843, four years after Goodyear. By the time Goodyear applied for an English patent he found that Hancock had filed a few weeks earlier.

His French patent was canceled on a technicality putting him in debtors’ prison again. There he received the Cross of the Legion of Honor, bestowed by Emperor Napoleon III.

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

Neither Goodyear nor his family was ever connected with the company named in his honour, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the world’s largest rubber business. Charles Goodyear’s only direct descendant among modern companies is United States Rubber, which years ago absorbed a small company he once served as director.


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Sources of Information

  • [1] Goodyear history