History of Rubber

Rubber Car Tyre

Natural Rubber was discovered by South American Indians who used it to waterproof their clothes. Christopher Columbus first introduced rubber to Europe in around 1500. At the time, it was a tricky material to use and rather impractical, it was sticky in hot weather and stiff and brittle in cold weather. Around the 1770s the material became commonly known as rubber owing to the material’s ability to erase or “rub out” pencil marks.

Prior to the 1800s, there were limited uses for rubber. However, popularity and interest in the material slowly increased and in 1823 a waterproof fabric was patented by inventor and scientist Charles MacIntosh, the son of a well-known fabric dyer in Glasgow. He achieved this by layering pieces of rubber between two pieces of wool cloth. Despite still stiffening in the cold, and a distinctive rubber smell, this invention addressed the issues associated with the use of rubber in hot temperatures. Thomas Hancock, a self-taught engineer from Wiltshire who was also working on using rubber to waterproof fabrics, took out a patent for artificial leather. He went on to invent the Masticator machine, which would break up the rubber into a warm mass of homogeneous materials which could then be easily shaped, even in cold weather. 

Following the inventions of the masticator and waterproof rubber, Macintosh and Hancock established a partnership and together developed the Mackintosh coat using masticated rubber. By 1836, rubber ‘macintoshes’ were very much in demand. Masticated rubber went on to be used for other applications including springs, solid rubber tyres, shoes, hoses, and mattresses. 

Both inventions, the Masticator and waterproof fabric, made rubber more practical and increased its widespread use. As Hancock continued to work on ways of improving the properties of rubber, so did Charles Goodyear, another self-taught scientist and engineer working in the USA. Both men successfully patented processes in their respective countries which involved heating rubber with sulphur at high temperatures causing the ‘cured’ rubber to become more stable, tougher, and more resistant to hot and cold temperatures. Goodyear named this process vulcanisation after the Roman God of fire, Vulcan. 

In 1888, John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinary surgeon working in Ireland, developed the first practical pneumatic bicycle tyre, using vulcanised rubber, for his child's tricycle. Dunlop sold the rights to his invention and the use of his name in 1895 and played no further part in the company which bore his name. This was followed by the development of tyres for motor vehicles which further increased the demand for rubber as the motor industry boomed. By 1906, the global output of natural rubber had risen to 60,000 tonnes and rubber was widely used in many applications including pneumatic tires, life jackets, gloves, hoses, seals, and valves.

As the demand for rubber increased, chemists attempted to develop new synthetic materials which could recreate the properties of rubber. The first synthetic rubbers were developed in Germany during the First World War. However, these rubbers could not compete with natural rubber on either quality or price. 

Despite the unpromising first attempts, interest in synthetic rubbers returned in the mid-1920s as the high demand for rubber led to sharp increases in price. By 1930 Germany had developed two successful synthetic rubbers. Synthetic rubbers were developed further during the second world war as natural rubber became difficult to source. Nowadays, synthetic rubbers account for over 50% of world rubber consumption. Commonly used synthetic rubbers include Styrene-Butadiene (SBR), Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (EPDM) and Polychloroprene, commonly referred to by its’ trade name, Neoprene (CR). (See Natural and Synthetic Rubbers.)

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