An indispensable product to modern society as steel, wood
and mortar is rubber. Rubber is of two typesnatural and manmade. All
of us use products made of rubber at home, at work, at play and even when we
travel. Automobiles, trains, aircraft, industries rely on it for variety of
purpose. That is why it is rightly said that rubber in the modern world is
What is rubber, exactly and where does it come from?
Rubber is a yellowish, elastic, amorphous material obtained from the latex
or milky sap of various tropical plants like the rubber tree. This latex is
vulcanized, pigmented, finished and modified into various products like
electric insulation, elastic bands, belts, tires, hoses, gaskets and
containers. Rubber is also known by its scientific name caoutchouc
or India rubber.
The exact origin of rubber is not known. The indigenous people of the
Americas had known and used rubber long before the arrival of European
explorers. Rubber makers in ancient Mesoamerica were almost 3,500 years
ahead of Charles Goodyear and his vulcanized rubber. The ancient Mayan
people used latex to make rubber balls which were used in an important
ritual game. This game was called Tlachtlic, a cross between football and
basketball, but had religious significance. This was recorded in the Popul
Vuh, a Mayan religious document.
In 1525, a person called Padre d'Anghieria reported that he had seen
Mexican tribespeople playing with elastic balls. An eraser was considered to
be the first use for rubber. This was suggested by Magellan, a descendent of
the famous Portuguese navigator. It was popularized in England by someone
called Priestley and it became known as India Rubber. The Portuguese meaning
of rubber is borracha and this originated from making jars replacing the
leather borrachas that the Portuguese used to ship wine.
In 1735, the first scientific study of rubber was undertaken by Charles de
la Condamine. According to him, rubber could be used to produce flexible
tubes. Since then, there were many craftsmen who become involved with
rubber. In 1820, Nadier, a British industrialist produced rubber threads and
attempted to use them in clothing accessories. This was the time when
America was seized by rubber fever, and there was the waterproof footwear
used by the indigenous people which became a success. Snow boots and
waterproof fabrics were produced in New England.
In 1832, the Rosburg factory was set up which unfortunately did not do well
as cold weather affected goods produced from non-vulcanized natural rubber,
leaving them brittle and thereby discouraging consumers.
After a long period trying to develop a process to upgrade rubber qualities
that almost ruined him, Goodyear discovered vulcanization, quite by accident
in 1840. Till 1839, rubber was subject to the change in weather conditions.
The rubber was hot and sticky during hot weather. It became cold and brittle
during cold weather. Goodyear discovered the process vulcanization when a
mixture of rubber, lead and sulfur were accidentally dropped onto a hot
stove. This resulted in a product which wasn't affected by weather, and
which came back to its original form if stretched. The process was refined
and thereby the uses for rubber materials increased. This new vulcanized
rubber was resistant to water and chemical interactions and did not conduct
electricity, and hence suitable for a variety of products.
Today more than 75% of rubber in production is a synthetic product made
from crude oil. During World War II, the United States could not supply
rubber worldwide, and they stepped up production of synthetic rubber for use
in the war effort. There are about 20 grades of synthetic rubber and
ultimately it is the intended end use which determines selection. Natural
rubber is just one kind. Because the rubber plant only thrives in hot, damp
regions near the equator, the principal countries where there is 90% of true
rubber production today is the Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia and
Thailand and Indonesia. However, Indonesia's production has dropped in
recent years and new rubber plantations were started in Africa to take up
Today there is not just one substance or a product called rubber. Rubber
belongs to a class, made up of a number of materials that have the unique
property of high elasticity.