Charles Goodyear (1800–1860) did not prosper in his lifetime, but the industry he helped to found has played a major role in the development of the world's economy. Goodyear failed at business, spent many years in and out of debtor's prison, and left his family destitute, but his persistent work at developing rubber as a commercial product launched an entire industry.
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 29, 1800, Charles Goodyear was son to a father who worked as a manufacturer, an inventor, and a merchant of hardware, particularly of farm tools and implements. Goodyear attended public schools and was sickly as a child—a problem he was never to overcome. At age 17 he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to learn the hardware business as a salesman, but ill health forced his return to New Haven in 1822, where he became his father's partner. At age 24 he married, and he and his wife Clarissa later had six children.
In 1826 Goodyear and his wife opened the first American hardware store in New Haven. Four years later, two events occurred that would shape Goodyear's life—both he and his father went bankrupt, and, on a trip to New York City, he visited a store that sold goods made of India rubber. Excited by the possibilities of goods made of rubber, Goodyear purchased a rubber life preserver from the Roxbury India Rubber Company. The only problem was that India rubber goods were frail; they became brittle when exposed to cold, and sticky when exposed to heat. Goodyear quickly invented an improved valve for the life preserver, but he was rebuffed by Roxbury and told that if he really wanted to improve the life preserver he would need to work on the rubber, not the valve.
So began a life's work that would consume Goodyear. He spent all of his time and resources working with rubber, trying every imaginable method to improve the quality of the material. He had no money, little knowledge of chemistry, and few resources for experimentation, yet he continued to persevere with his experiments, using trial and error to see what would work. He mixed rubber with anything and everything, from witch hazel to castor oil, from acids to cream cheese. Throughout his efforts, Goodyear was in poor financial condition. While his family often lived on the charity of friends, he zealously pursued his dream of developing rubber. He worked on his processes even while in debtor's prison.
Goodyear thought that he had secured acceptable results for treating rubber with nitric acid laced with sulfuric acid, but the financial panic of 1837 wiped out his fledgling company. Undaunted, he kept on with his work, wearing a suit of clothes made from rubber as a gimmick to gain attention. Shortly after the panic, Nathaniel Hayward partnered with Goodyear, and it appeared that their venture would be successful: The U.S. Post Office ordered 150 mailbags made of Goodyear's treated rubber. Unfortunately, the bags disintegrated in the summer heat and the venture failed. Goodyear persevered. His breakthrough came quite by accident in 1839, when he spilled a rubber and sulfur mixture onto a hot stove. Expecting the rubber to melt, Goodyear was surprised to see that the rubber had only charred on the edges. The areas that had not burned retained their elastic properties. Exposed to cold, this fragment continued to maintain its flexibility.
Goodyear had discovered the key to the process he called vulcanization, which was to cure the rubber-acid mixture with heat. He obtained a patent for the process on June 14, 1844; however, his typically poor business sense led him to license the patent at ridiculously low prices. Moreover, industrial pirates preyed on the patent and used it without authorization. Goodyear eventually retained famed attorney Daniel Webster (1782–1852)to represent him and secure his rights, but Webster's attorney fees exceeded the amount that Goodyear had made from his patent. He also had trouble obtaining a patent abroad, since Thomas Hancock had already patented the process in Great Britain.
Still attempting to make good on his dream of manufacturing rubber products, Goodyear borrowed money for extravagant displays of his products in London in 1851, and in Paris in 1855. He earned nothing from these attempts and spent another round in debtor's prison as a result of the Paris show. Nevertheless, while in debtor's prison he was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor for his efforts.
Goodyear returned home sick, feeble, and broke. When his daughter was dying in 1860, Goodyear traveled to New Haven to visit her, but he died en route in New York in 1860, leaving his family more than $200,000 in debt.
See also: Tire and Rubber Industry
Allen, Hugh. The House of Goodyear: A Story of Rubber and Modern Business. New York: Arno Press, 1976.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998, s.v. "Goodyear, Charles."
O'Reilly, Maurice. Goodyear Story. New York: Benjamin Co., 1983.
Quackenbush, Robert M. Oh, What an Awful Mess: A Story of Charles Goodyear. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.
Travers, Bridget, ed. World of Invention. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
American inventor Charles Goodyear made important contributions to the practical application of rubber and its related industries. His discovery of the process of vulcanization, by which raw rubber could be made into a strong, malleable material, became useful for a large number of common products, most famously the rubber tire.
Goodyear's father was a New Haven, Connecticut, hardware inventor, manufacturer, and merchant specializing in farm tools, but also purveying items as diverse as pearl buttons. While attending public school, young Charles spent much time at his father's store, factory, and farm. He showed an interest in studying for the clergy, but his father saw a budding businessman and arranged for Charles to learn the hardware trade at a firm in Philadelphia. He did and, upon returning to New Haven and entering into partnership with his father, contributed to the success of their business, especially on the sales and merchandising side. He married a New Haven woman, Clarissa Beecher, in 1824.
In 1826 Charles and his wife moved back to Philadelphia to open his own hardware store, stocking mainly his father's products. By 1830 both Charles and his father were bankrupt, primarily because they were too generous in extending credit to their customers. Charles, although he had health problems on top of his financial ones, did not use the bankruptcy laws to assuage the pain. He was able to pay off some of his creditors by giving them interests in new Goodyear inventions. This was inadequate, however, and Goodyear was to suffer imprisonment for debt more than once before he died.
In 1834 he called on a company that dealt in India rubber goods, thinking a better valve might improve their inflatable life-preserver (and save the Goodyears from financial ruin). He devised such a valve, but the rubber company manager, more impressed by the ingenuity of its designer, told Goodyear of a better way to make big bucks. The rewards, he said, would flow if he could solve the rubber industry's big problem: During the summer, rubber became sticky, melted, and decomposed.
Goodyear was inspired by the challenge and began to experiment with rubber. His first tests were made in a Philadelphia jail. Experiments with magnesia looked good in the winter of 1834-35, but deflated his hopes in the summer.
By 1837, then back in New Haven, Goodyear was relying on the charity of others, even to feed his family. Two New Yorkers helped him continue his experiments in that city. One gave him a room; the other, a druggist, supplied rubber and chemicals. That year he obtained Patent No. 240 and began to manufacture sample articles including rubber clothes. In his Gum Elastic and Its Varieties, Goodyear provided the following description of himself in the words of another: "If you meet a man who has on an India rubber cap, stock, coat, vest and shoes, with an India rubber money purse without a cent of money in it, that is he."
A year later, Goodyear met Nathaniel Hayward, who had discovered that sulfur was good for taking stickiness out of rubber. His process involved the combining of rubber with a sulfur and turpentine mixture, then applying Goodyear's patented acid-metal process.
This set the stage for Goodyear's greatest discovery. Heat, rubber's old enemy, became its best friend. In an animated discussion with a group of interested gentlemen in his laboratory, Goodyear accidentally dropped a blob of the rubber-sulfur mixture on top of a red-hot stove. The pancake did not melt, but was transformed into a strong, pliable, resilient, unsticky (albeit slightly charred) material. He had discovered the process that would later be called vulcanization (named for Vulcan, the Roman god of fire).
Of course, the process needed development and refinement, which Goodyear undertook on borrowed money, most of it never repaid. Many people made fortunes from rubber, or in the case of lawyers, the litigation about its patents and processes. Goodyear seems to have piled up only debts until the day of his death. He did, however, receive accolades. In France he was awarded the Grand Medal of Honor and the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 29, 1800. Goodyear began his work on rubber in 1834, when rubber from Brazilian trees (Hevea brasiliensis ) was first being imported to the United States in large quantities. He approached a rubber goods manufacturer with an idea for a valve for an inflatable life buoy, but was advised that the company's own products were failing because of the material's inherent flaws. Although it had outstanding qualities, it turned brittle and hard at low temperatures, and worse, into a gooey mass during warm weather.
Goodyear was determined to solve the problems inherent in natural rubber. With no formal training in chemistry, his work was based on trial and error, experimenting with different methods of processing and additives such as magnesia. The solution he discovered resulted partly from serendipity and partly from constant work.
The breakthrough came in 1839 while Goodyear was exhibiting his most recent samples at a general store in Woburn, Massachusetts. When he accidentally dropped a piece on a hot stove, it burned, but the uncharred part was transformed into a smooth, firm material that was not affected by high or low temperature. The additive in the sample was sulfur, but it took Goodyear several months to determine the right combination of heat, pressure, and sulfur to produce a stable compound. He found that the best material was produced when the compound was steam-heated under pressure at 120°C (248°F) for four to six hours. Its first commercial use was as elastic thread in men's shirts.
Goodyear vigorously promoted his product, but was forced to spend large sums of money defending his patent. In Britain, Thomas Hancock had received a patent for vulcanized rubber (after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire) a few months before Goodyear applied for his. Although Hancock offered to share his royalties, Goodyear took his claim of sole ownership to court and lost. He also lost his French patent, although he was eventually awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor by Napoléon III for his important work.
Goodyear invented a material that would eventually be used in thousands of ways and opened the door for a huge industry. Today there is one rubber tree for every two people on Earth. Despite this, he died destitute in New York on July 1, 1860. Although the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was named in his honor, Goodyear's descendants had little to do with the rubber industry after his death.
see also Polymers, Natural; Rubber.
Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. "Charles Goodyear and the Strange Story of Rubber." Available from <http://www.goodyear.com/corporate/strange.html>.
Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), American inventor, experimented with, perfected, and promoted the use of vulcanized rubber. He was instrumental in establishing the rubber industry in the United States.
Charles Goodyear was born on Dec. 29, 1800, in New Haven, Conn. He attended the local public schools. His father was an inventor, manufacturer, and merchant of hardware, especially of farm tools. When Charles was 17, his father sent him to Philadelphia to learn the business, and at 21 he returned to become his father's partner. He married at the age of 24 and 2 years later opened a store in Philadelphia. In 1830 a lifetime of financial distress began for the Goodyears when both father and son went bankrupt.
On a trip to New York City that year, Goodyear visited a store that sold goods made of india rubber, a product only recently manufactured in America. Inspired by the possibilities of the material, he determined to improve its usefulness. His first experiments were carried out in jail, where he had been sent for failure to pay his debts.
In 1837 Goodyear settled his family on the charity of friends near New Haven and went to New York to continue his work. He received a patent for an improved type of rubber and was able to find a modest amount of financial backing. After moving to Massachusetts, he met Nathaniel M. Hayward, an inventor, whose patent on a process for mixing sulfur with rubber he bought. Goodyear intended to combine the new patented process with his old one, which involved coating rubber with an acid and metal.
During an argument one day in his shop, Goodyear accidentally dropped a piece of the sulfur-impregnated rubber on a hot stove. Instead of melting, it merely charred slightly. Realizing the importance of this (two major drawbacks to using rubber were that it melted at high temperatures and tended to harden at low temperatures), he began experiments to discover the proper proportions and method of baking the new type of rubber, which he called "vulcanized." His critical patent was issued on June 15, 1844, after he had borrowed $50,000 for experiments, little of which was ever repaid. He claimed to have found more than 500 uses for rubber and received patents in all countries except England, where Thomas Hancock had invented vulcanization in 1843. When Goodyear died in 1860, he left his wife and six children $200,000 in debt.
Biographies of Goodyear include Ralph Frank Wolf, India Rubber Man: The Story of Charles Goodyear (1939), and Adolph C. Regli, Rubber's Goodyear: The Story of a Man's Perseverance (1941). A shorter study is in John C. Patterson, America's Greatest Inventors (1943). □