Charles Goodyear's invention of the process of vulcanizing rubber, though discovered accidentally, was the culmination of a long series of experiments in which he sought a means to prevent India rubber from melting and decomposing at high temperatures.
The American India rubber industry, beginning in 1830, had experienced a phenomenal growth, but collapsed within four years with losses totaling $2 million due to an inability to make the rubber heat-resistant. In 1834, Goodyear designed a value for inflating India rubber life preservers, but was told that a more beneficial invention would be a process to cure the rubber and make it harder.
Goodyear began his experiments, forsaking all gainful employment and living off the charity of his friends and relatives. His first experiments were unsuccessful. In 1837, while living in New Haven, Goodyear obtained a patent for a process which destroyed the adhesive properties of rubber by mixing it with nitric acid and copper. He began producing toys, surgical bandages and maps and even designed a suit of clothes for himself. However, sufficient capital for marketing his products could not be found, and he was again faced with financial difficulties.
Leaving his family in New Haven, Goodyear traveled to Roxbury, Massachusetts, formerly the center of the rubber industry, and obtained permission to use one of its abandoned factories. By 1833 he was producing shoes, piano covers and tablecloths. In the same year Goodyear met Nathaniel Hayward, a former employee in a rubber factory, who was about to patent his discovery that sulfur spread on rubber eliminated its stickiness. Hayward assigned his patent, granted in 1839, to Goodyear, who combined the Hayward process with his own patented nitric acid coating. The final step in the discovery of vulcanization was made when Goodyear accidentally dropped a mass of rubber treated with Hayward's sulfur solution onto a hot stove. The rubber did not melt, but remained solid. Goodyear quickly realized that the problems which had caused the rapid decline of the India rubber industry had been solved. Continuing his experiments, he produced both "hard" and "soft" rubber products.
In 1844, Goodyear received a patent for his process, but he was unable to reap any financial rewards. To pay off his debts he was forced to sell licenses and establish royalties at prices far below their real value. In 1852, Daniel Webster defended the patent rights of companies operating under Goodyear's patents. His fee was $25,000, which was more than Goodyear ever managed to acquire for himself from his inventions.
With the rubber industry re-established in the United States, Goodyear traveled to Europe in 1851 in an effort to extend his patent. He designed an exhibit at the international exhibition in London at a cost of $30,000. The entire exhibit was made of rubber -- furniture, floor covering, books, etc. In 1855 he built a similar exhibit at the Paris Exposition. As a result of his European tour, he was granted patents in every country except England. An infringement suit was brought against an Englishman who had patented a process similar to Goodyear's in 1843, but the suit was unsuccessful. Goodyear sold manufacturing licenses in England, France and Germany, inaugurating a European rubber industry.
In 1859 he returned to the United States, continuing his experiments, and discovered many new uses for rubber, eventually claiming nearly 500 applications for his discovery. Still, upon his death in 1860, he was in debt to relatives and financial backers for $200,000.
Goodyear's invention breathed new life into the defunct American rubber industry and created the European industry as a result of his exhibit in the Crystal Palace in 1851. In New Haven, Leverett Candee produced India rubber items under Goodyear's patent, and the industrial development of the Naugatuck River Valley can be traced to the New Haven inventor.
Reprinted with permission of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, taken from The Completion of Independence in New Haven, Pioneers of Culture and Industry, published in 1975 by the New Haven Colony Historical Society.