Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Charles Goodyear,
the Prince of the Rubber Industry

The stories of Morse of the telegraph and Howe of the sewing-machine are remarkable examples of perseverance under difficulties that would crush a common man. The story of Charles Goodyear, which we have next to tell, is one of the same kind. No man ever kept up his spirit longer under trials and troubles than this great discoverer, winning success where thousands would have failed. The story of his life is that of the India-rubber industry. His labors in this took more than ten years of the prime of his life. For it he suffered poverty, imprisonment, and ridicule, and, though he produced one of the great modern industries, he failed to gain an adequate return in money for his great sacrifice. Fortune did not come to him as it did to Morse and Howe, and he had largely to be content with the satisfaction of helping mankind.

The sap of the India-rubber tree long held out a promising lure to inventors. It formed a waterproof material which could readily be moulded into almost any shape, and in the first half of the last century many companies were organized for the manufacture of shoes and other rubber goods. But there was one great difficulty, the rubber was fit for use in winter, but it would not bear the summer's heat, softening and becoming useless.

In the opinion of certain manufacturers of India-rubber life-preservers in 1834, the ,business was almost hopeless. They would make a large quantity of goods during the winter and sell them for good prices, but in the summer many of these melted down and were returned as ruined. The rubber would grow sticky in the sun and stiff in the cold. Many efforts had been made to overcome this by mixing other materials with it, but all in vain, and ruin seemed to stare all rubber manufacturers in the face. The man who saved them from this fate was Charles Goodyear, a merchant of Philadelphia, but a native of New Haven, Connecticut, in which city he was born on the 29th of December, 1800.

At the time mentioned he was engaged in the hardware business of A. Goodyear & Sons in the Quaker City. At this period a very large business had sprung up in the rubber trade, in spite of its disadvantages, and he grew interested in it as a possible source of profit. When in New York one day he bought one of the India-rubber life-preservers made by the Roxbury Rubber Co., the manufacturers above spoken of. Having the taste for invention of a true son of Connecticut, he took this home, examined it carefully, and fancied that he could improve upon it. He soon devised a plan, which he took to the Roxbury Company and asked them to adopt. They declined to do so, telling him the story of their difficulties in some such words as those above given.

"Your plan is a good one," he was told, "but business conditions will not let us take on new expenses. If you can only find some way to make India-rubber stand the heat of summer and the cold of winter, both our fortunes will be made. Anything less than that will be of no use to us."

Here was an idea, thrown out as a mere suggestion, but it was one that sank deep into Charles Goodyear's mind. But he was very poorly fitted to work it out. A chemical process was needed, and he knew almost nothing of chemistry. In fact, he had little education of any kind. Money was wanted, and he was scantily provided with that. The failure of some business houses about this time made his father's firm bankrupt, and he, as a member of the firm, was arrested and imprisoned for debt.

Those were the years in which a debtor could be put in prison, and during the several years following Goodyear spent much of his time in jail. He had a family, he was in poor health, he needed to do something that would make him a living, but he had grown so infatuated with the idea of discovering the secret of a marketable India-rubber that he could think of nothing else.

Rubber was abundant enough in those days, and he was able easily to get it even when in prison. He was constantly engaged in experiments with it, whether in prison or out. His friends, who aided him at first, soon grew tired of encouraging him in what they deemed his infatuation. His ignorance of chemistry was much against him, and though he explained his difficulty to the chemists of his city, none of them were able to help him.

If Charles Goodyear lacked money, there was one thing he had in abundance—perseverance. He never gave up. Persuasion, argument, ridicule, had no effect upon him. He tried endless experiments, made India-rubber fabrics of various kinds, and, with a native taste for art, ornamented some of them. It was this that led to his first step towards success.

He had bronzed the surface of some rubber drapery, and, finding his bronze too heavy; poured aquafortis on it to eat some of it away. The acid did its work too well, removing all the bronze and discoloring the fabric, so that he threw it away as spoiled. Thinking over it some days later, he picked up the discarded piece and examined it again, and was delighted to find it much improved in quality, it bearing heat far better than any he had tried before. Here was something learned. He hastened to patent his new process, and, gaining some money, he engaged in the manufacture of rubber treated with aquafortis.

But his troubles were not yet at an end. People had grown sick of India-rubber, which had ruined many firms that had engaged in it, and no capitalists cared to touch it. As for Goodyear himself, many began to think that he had become so possessed with his idea that he was little better than a crazy man. His enthusiasm for his rubber was such that he wore whole suits made of it, coat, cap, shoes, and all, and made himself a walking advertisement. He talked of it so incessantly that people felt like running away from him. It was "rubber, rubber, rubber," all day long, till many voted him a nuisance.

All this time he was suffering from poverty, and the pawnbroker and he grew much too well acquainted. His family suffered as well, and want ruled in the Goodyear household. After a time he persuaded some of the members of the old Roxbury Company to invest in his new discovery, and a new factory was started, which for a time did a large business. Then it was found that the aquafortis hardened the surface only, and that the rest of the rubber would not bear the heat. At once the business fell off, the Roxbury men withdrew their funds, and the inventor sank into destitution again.

His friends now did their utmost to persuade him to give up his fruitless work. His wife and children did the same. But they advised and persuaded in vain. He would not yield. Through all he was working blindly, handicapped by his small knowledge of chemistry, and simply making chance experiments, but for all this he kept on. Luck came through an assistant of his who had tried the effect of mixing the gum with sulphur. This was a new process, not tried before by Goodyear, and he studied it thoroughly, working at it for months, but with very unsatisfactory results. Yet the end was near at hand. Chance helped him where science had failed. One day in 1839 a mass of gum and sulphur he had mixed happened to touch a red-hot stove. To his surprise and delight, its character was changed by the heat and it would not melt. He tried and tested it in every way he could think of, and always with the same result. He had penetrated the mystery. The great secret was his! All that was needed was to mix the gum with sulphur and expose it to great heat. It would afterwards stand both heat and cold.

For five years the indefatigable investigator had been steadily at work, in prison and out, in poverty and want, under every discouragement, enduring the ridicule of the public, the reproaches of friends and family, the insults of those who touched their heads significantly when they looked at him. He had at last won out, as the saying is; the great discovery of vulcanized rubber was his, and fortune at length seemed to lie in his path.

Yet it did not come quickly. Six years more of severe labor and hard trials were before him. He did not propose to act hastily again, as he had with his former discovery. He spent these years in new experiments, working out one thing after another, perfecting this point and that, and taking out a patent on everything achieved, until he had sixty patents in all, covering every step he had made.

Unfortunately, his patents were confined to America. Other parties secured in England and France the rights which should have been his, litigation was needed at home to protect his rights, and his profits from his valuable discovery were far smaller than they should have been. But honors came to him from many sources. From the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 he, received the Grand Council medal, and at the Paris Exposition of 1855 the emperor gave him the Grand Medal of Honor and the Cross of the Legion of Honor. But disease had attacked the discoverer. Returning to America in 1858, he went to work energetically to perfect his processes, but his ills had become chronic, and death came two years later, on July 1, 1860.

"He lived," says Parton, "to see his material applied to nearly five hundred uses, and to give employment, in England, Germany, France, and the United States, to sixty thousand persons. Art, science and humanity are indebted to him for a material which serves the purposes of them all, and serves them as no other known material could."