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Charles Goodyear (December 29, 1800 - July 1, 1860) is an American, popularly renowned as the inventor of vulcanized rubber, which he received a patent for on June 15, 1844. Vulcanized rubber is currently still used in tires and other hard rubber products. He is also known for inspiring the name of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, although he had no connection with the company, which was founded after his death.
Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut on December 29, 1800. He was the son of Amasa Goodyear, and the eldest among six children. His father was quite proud of being a descendant of Stephen Goodyear, one of the founders of the colony of New Haven in 1638.
Amasa Goodyear owned a little farm on the neck of land in New Haven which is now known as Oyster Point, and it was here that Charles spent the earliest years of his life. When Charles was quite young, his father secured an interest in a patent for the manufacture of ivory buttons, and looking for a convenient location for a small mill, settled at Naugatuck, Connecticut, where he made use of the valuable water power that is there. Aside from his manufacturing, the elder Goodyear ran a farm, and between farming and manufacturing kept Charles Goodyear busy.
In 1816, Charles left his home and went to Philadelphia to learn the hardware business. He worked at this very industriously until he was twenty-one years old, and then, returning to Connecticut, entered into partnership in his father's business in Naugatuck, where they manufactured not only ivory and metal buttons, but a variety of agricultural implements, which were just beginning to be appreciated by farmers.
Marriage and Early Career
In August of 1824 he was united in marriage with Clarissa Beecher, a woman of supposedly remarkable strength of character and kindness of disposition, and one who in after years was of the greatest assistance to the impulsive inventor. Two years later he moved again to Philadelphia, and there opened a hardware store. His specialties were the valuable agricultural implements that his firm had been manufacturing, and after the first distrust of home made goods had worn away — for all agricultural implements were imported from England at that time — he found himself established at the head of a successful business.
This continued to increase until it seemed that he was to be a wealthy man. Between 1829 and 1830 he suddenly broke down in health, being troubled with dyspepsia. At the same time came the failure of a number of business houses that seriously embarrassed his firm. They struggled on, however, for some time, but were finally obliged to fail. The ten years that followed this were full of the bitterest struggles and trials to Goodyear. Under the law that then existed he was imprisoned time after time for debts, even while he was trying to perfect inventions that should pay off his indebtedness.
Between the years 1831 and 1832, Goodyear began to hear about gum elastic and very carefully examined every article that appeared in the newspapers relative to this new material. The Roxbury Rubber Company, of Boston, had been for some time experimenting with the gum, and believing that they had found means for manufacturing goods from it, had a large plant and were sending their goods all over the country. It was some of their goods that first attracted his attention. Soon after this, Goodyear visited New York, and went at once to the store of the Roxbury Rubber Company. While there, he examined with considerable care some of their life preservers, and it struck him that the tube used for inflation was not very effective nor well-made. Therefore, upon returning to Philadelphia, he made some tubes and brought them back to New York and showed them to the manager of the Roxbury Rubber Company.
This gentleman was very pleased with the ingenuity that Goodyear had shown in manufacturing these tubes. He confessed to Goodyear that the business was on the verge of ruin, and that his products had to be tested for a year before it could be determined if they were perfect or not. To their surprise, thousands of dollars worth of goods that they had determined to be of good quality were being returned, the gum having rotted, making them useless. Goodyear at once made up his mind to experiment on this gum and see if he could overcome the problems with these rubber products.
However, when he returned to Philadelphia, a creditor had him arrested and thrown into prison. While there, he tried his first experiments with India rubber. The gum was very cheap then, and by heating it and working it in his hands, he managed to incorporate in it a certain amount of magnesia which produced a beautiful white compound and appeared to take away the stickiness.
He therefore thought he had discovered the secret, and through the kindness of friends was enabled to improve his invention in New Haven. The first thing that he made here was shoes, and he used his own house for grinding room, calender room, and vulcanizing department, with the help of his wife and children. His compound at this time consisted of India rubber, lampblack, and magnesia, the whole dissolved in turpentine and spread upon the flannel cloth which served as the lining for the shoes. It was not long, however, before he discovered that the gum, even treated this way, became sticky. His creditors, completely discouraged, decided that he would not be allowed to go further in his research.
Goodyear, however, had no mind to stop here in his experiments. Selling his furniture and placing his family in a quiet boarding place, he went to New York, and there, in an attic, helped by a friendly druggist, continued his experiments. His next step in this line was to compound the rubber with magnesia and then boil it in quicklime and water. This appeared to solve the problem. At once it was noticed abroad that he had treated India rubber to lose its stickiness, and he received international acclamation. He seemed on the high road to success, until one day he noticed that a drop of weak acid, falling on the cloth, neutralized the alkali and immediately caused the rubber to become soft again. This proved to him that his process was not a successful one. He therefore continued experimenting, and after preparing his mixtures in his attic in New York, would walk three miles to a mill in Greenwich Village to try various experiments.
In the line of these, he discovered that rubber dipped in nitric acid formed a surface cure, and he made many products with this acid cure which were held in high regard, and which even received a letter of commendation from Andrew Jackson.
The constant and varied experiments that Goodyear went through affected his health, and at one time he came very near being suffocated by gas generated in his laboratory. Goodyear survived, but the resulting fever came very close to taking his life.
Together with a new business partner, he built up a factory and began to make clothing, life preservers, rubber shoes, and a great variety of other rubber goods. They also had a large factory with special machinery, built at Staten Island, where he moved his family and again had a home of his own. Just about this time, when everything looked bright, the panic of 1837 came and swept away the entire fortune of his associate and left Goodyear penniless.
His next move was to go to Boston, where he became acquainted with J. Haskins, of the Roxbury Rubber Company. Goodyear found him to be a good friend, who lent him money and stood by him when no one would have anything to do with the visionary inventor. A man named Mr. Chaffee was also exceedingly kind and ever ready to lend a listening ear to his plans, and to also assist him in a pecuniary way. It was about this time that it occurred to Mr. Chaffee that much of the trouble that they had experienced in working India rubber might come from the solvent that was used. He therefore invented a huge machine for doing the mixing by mechanical means. The goods that were made in this way were beautiful to look at, and it appeared, as it had before, that all difficulties were overcome.
Goodyear discovered a new method for making rubber shoes and got a patent on it, which he sold to the Providence Company in Rhode Island. However, the secret of making the rubber so that it would stand heat and cold and acids, however, had not been discovered, and the goods were constantly growing sticky and decomposing and being returned.
The Vulcanization Process
In 1838 he, for the first time, met Nathaniel Hayward, who was then running a factory in Woburn, Massachusetts. Some time after this Goodyear himself moved to Woburn, all the time continuing his experiments. He was very much interested in Hayward's sulphur experiments for drying rubber, but it appears that neither of them at that time appreciated the fact that it needed heat to make the sulphur combine with the rubber and to vulcanize it.
The circumstances attending the discovery of his celebrated process is thus described by Mr. Goodyear himself in his book, "Gum Elastic." Perhaps showing humility, Goodyear used only third person references when speaking about himself.
In 1838, Goodyear met Nathaniel Hayward in Woburn, Massachusetts. Hayward told Goodyear that he had used sulfur in rubber manufacturing by mixing it with the solvent. This is when Goodyear learned that sulfur could be used to dry the gum elastic. Goodyear was able to move his business into an abandoned factory, and he employed Hayward for manufacturing various rubber products. Goodyear was able to make this business successful, and the improvement in his products was recognized.
When using the new acid gas process, as it became called, it was thought by Goodyear and others that the whole of the rubber product was acted upon by the gas. In reality, the eventual decomposition of the material beneath the surface still eventually rendered the product useless. This would unfortunately break the initial success of his project.
Soon after, Hayward left Goodyear's employment. Goodyear worked alone, and did various experiments to ascertain the effect of heat upon the acid gas treated product which would decompose. He was surprised to find that when the treated product, when carelessly brought into contact with a hot stove, became hard and charred like leather. Excited, he called the attention of his brother and other individuals who were familiar with the rubber manufacturing process. The others did not deem the new discovery worthy of notice, but instead one of the frequent appeals he made for new experiments. However, Goodyear was sure that if the heating of the rubber was stopped at the correct moment, then a better product could be produced.
Goodyear tried the experiment again with a similar material over an open flame, and saw that the same effect occurred again. The gum elastic was charred, but on the edge of the charred areas were portions that were not charred, but were instead perfectly cured. This process was refined to become the vulcanizing process.
The inventor himself admitted that the discovery of the vulcanizing process was not the direct result of the scientific method, but claims that it was not accidental. Rather it was the result of application and observation.
Now that Goodyear was sure that he had the key to the intricate puzzle that he had worked over for so many years, he began at once to tell his friends about it and to try to secure capital, but they had listened to their sorrow so many times that his efforts were futile. For a number of years be struggled and experimented and worked along in a small way, his family suffering with himself the pangs of the extremest poverty. At last he went to New York and showed some of his samples to William Ryder, who, with his brother Emory, at once appreciated the value of the discovery and started in to manufacturing. Even here Goodyear's bad luck seemed to follow him, for the Ryder Bros. failed and it was impossible to continue the business.
He had, however, started a small factory at Springfield, Massachusetts, and his brother-in-law, Mr. De Forest, who was a wealthy woolen manufacturer, took Ryder's place. The work of making the invention practical was continued. In 1844 it was so far perfected that Goodyear felt it safe to take out a patent. The factory at Springfield was run by his brothers, Nelson and Henry. In 1843 Henry started one in Naugatuck, and in 1844 introduced mechanical mixing in place of the mixture by the use of solvents.
In the year 1852 Goodyear went to Europe, a trip that he had long planned, and saw Hancock, then in the employ of Charles Macintosh & Co. Hancock admitted in evidence that the first piece of vulcanized rubber he ever saw came from America, but claimed to have reinvented vulcanization and secured patents in Great Britain, but it is a remarkable fact that Charles Goodyear's French patent was the first publication in Europe of this discovery.
In 1852 a French company was licensed by Mr. Goodyear to make shoes, and a great deal of interest was felt in the new business. In 1855 the French emperor gave to Charles Goodyear the Grand Medal of Honor and decorated him with the Cross of the Legion of Honor in recognition of his services as a public benefactor. Later, the French courts subsequently set aside his French patents on the ground of the importation of vulcanized goods from America by licenses under the United States patents.
He died July 1, 1860, at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City.
- Scientific American Supplement, No. 787, January 31, 1891 on Project Gutenberg
- The Charles Goodyear Story