Entrepreneur, innovator, inventor, and Connecticut legend Charles Goodyear was a self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer who developed vulcanized rubber. He is also credited with inventing the chemical process to create and manufacture pliable, waterproof, moldable rubber.
Birth of An Innovator
Goodyear was born December 29, 1800 in New Haven, CT. In 1814, Goodyear left Connecticut and went to Philadelphia, PA to learn the hardware business. Good year married Clarissa Beecher in August of 1824. Two years later the family moved to Philadelphia, where he and his father, inventor and businessman Amasa Goodyear, started the first retail domestic hardware store in the United States.
Goodyear returned to Connecticut several years later after the business went bankrupt. He began experimenting with natural rubber in his mid-30s, determined to pursue a new venture: the stabilization of rubber for commercial use.
In 1831, Goodyear learned about gum elastic (natural rubber). He became fascinated with it and is quotes as saying, “There is probably no other inert substance which so excites the mind.”
He spent a year examining every newspaper article related to this new material.
The Roxbury Rubber Company was a large plant that had been experimenting with gum elastic with the hopes of manufacturing goods made from the material and was sending its goods all over the country.
Goodyear was intrigued by the Roxbury Rubber Company’s products. He became interested in life preservers, and realized the tubes used to inflate was ineffective and not poorly manufactured. He made some tubes, which he showed them to the manager of the Roxbury Rubber Company.
The manager was impressed with the innovation Goodyear had shown in manufacturing the tubes. At the time, the Roxbury Rubber Company was supposedly on the verge of run. Thousands of dollars’ worth of goods were being returned due to the gum elastic rotting.
On the Road to Innovation
Goodyear was determined to experiment with the gum elastic to solve the problems with the rubber products. He first experimented with India rubber, which was inexpensive at the time. By heating the rubber and working it in his hands, Goodyear incorporated magnesia, which removed the stickiness.
Goodyear thought he had discovered the secret. Through the kindness of friends, he was able to improve his invention in New Haven. However, he soon realized that the gum, even treated in his innovative way, still became sticky. Discouraged, his creditors, decided he would not be allowed to go further in his research.
Goodyear preserved. He continued with his experiments. His next concept was to compound the rubber with magnesia and then boil it in quicklime and water, which seemed to solve the stickiness problem.
When word got out that Goodyear had created a means of treating India rubber to lose its stickiness, he received international recognition. However, he soon noticed that a drop of weak acid neutralized the alkali and immediately caused the rubber to become soft again. This proved to him that his process was not a successful one.
Goodyear continued his experiments and soon discovered that rubber dipped in nitric acid formed a surface cure. He made many products with this acid cure, which were held in high regard—he even received a letter of commendation from Andrew Jackson.
In 1842, Goodyear started a small factory at Springfield, MA, that made clothing, life preservers, rubber shoes, and variety of other rubber goods. The factory was run by Charles’ brothers, Nelson and Henry Goodyear.
There Goodyear discovered a new method for making rubber shoes. He received a patent, which he sold to the Providence Company in RI. However, a method had not yet been found to process rubber to make it withstand hot and cold temperatures and acids. The rubber goods were constantly growing sticky, decomposing and being returned to the manufacturers. Goodyear continued his work of making his method more practical.
In 1839 Goodyear discovered the process of vulcanization. It took him several years to recreate the chemical formula and refine the process of mixing sulfur and rubber at a high temperature.
Goodyear wrote about his discovery in his autobiographical book Gum-Elastica. (Note that although the book is an autobiography, Goodyear wrote it in the third person). This passage describes the scene in a rubber factory where his brother worked:
The inventor made experiments to ascertain the effect of heat on the same compound that had decomposed in the mail-bags and other articles. He was surprised to find that the specimen, being carelessly brought into contact with a hot stove, charred like leather.
Goodyear continues, describing how his discovery was not readily accepted:
He directly inferred that if the process of charring could be stopped at the right point, it might divest the gum of its native adhesiveness throughout, which would make it better than the native gum. Upon further trial with heat, he was further convinced of the correctness of this inference, by finding that the India rubber could not be melted in boiling sulfur at any heat, but always charred. He made another trial of heating a similar fabric before an open fire. The same effect, that of charring the gum, followed. There were further indications of success in producing the desired result, as upon the edge of the charred portion appeared a line or border that was not charred, but perfectly cured.
Goodyear later describes how he systematically experimented to optimize the curing of rubber:
On ascertaining to a certainty that he had found the object of his search and much more, and that the new substance was proof against cold and the solvent of the native gum, he felt himself amply repaid for the past, and quite indifferent to the trials of the future.
Goodyear patented the “vulcanization” process in 1844, one year after founding the Naugatuck India-Rubber Company in Naugatuck, CT. Goodyear named his invention, vulcanization, after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
Many products are currently made with vulcanized rubber, such as tires, shoe soles, hoses, and conveyor belts. Hard vulcanized rubber, which is known as “vulcanite,” is used in making items such as clarinet and saxophone mouth pieces, bowling balls, and hockey pucks.
Connecticut Manufacturing Pioneer
Goodyear licensed his vulcanization patent to manufacturers and promoted it at exhibitions. His vulcanization process put Naugatuck, CT, on the map as a prominent location for rubber manufacturing during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Goodyear supposedly saw rubber as the first and most versatile of the modern “plastics.” His innovative invention spearheaded decades of rubber manufacturing in Connecticut’s Lower Naugatuck Valley—including Uniroyal, maker of Keds sneakers.
A Legacy of Innovation In Connecticut—And Beyond
The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., which was founded in Akron, OH, in 1898, was named in Charles Goodyear’s honor. The Goodyear Blimp also bears his name. Even today, the main thoroughfare in Naugatuck, CT is named Rubber Avenue.
In spite of these successes, Goodyear battled patent infringements and debt until his death in 1860. He is buried in New Haven, CT and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1976.
“Life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents,” wrote Goodyear. “I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.”