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The man who changed the world
By Steven Martinovich
The story of rubber is in many ways as relevant to us in the 21st century as it was to those in the 19th century. Along with our continued dependence on it, rubber also illustrates that irrational exuberance wasn't unique to the late 1990s high-tech boom and the figures behind the 19th century boom are in every way as interesting as the dotcom personalities were to us.
Although it was in use by natives in South America for centuries before Europeans first landed in the New World, rubber's reputation for many people was a poor one. Although it was in use for a variety of products by the early 1800s, rubber had a very fatal flaw. Variations in temperature made it unreliable. In cold weather it would become stiff while in warm weather it became sticky, making rubberized raincoats, for example, uncomfortable to wear outside a narrow range of temperatures. Despite that, everyone recognized that if that problem could be solved, rubber would be the miracle substance of the 19th century.
After waves of heavy investment the rubber industry was in collapse in the 1830s and its proponents had retrenched to try to solve its problems. At this point in rubber's story strides in Charles Goodyear, the hero of Charles Slack's Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century. Slack's Goodyear is a supremely passionate genius who sacrificed nearly everything he had in order to unlock the secret to turning rubber into the ubiquitous substance it is today. With wife Clarissa at his side displaying a superhuman patience, Goodyear spent years of his life, all of his family's money and then some and destroyed his health before coming up with the process of vulcanization.
A discovery that should have led to fame and fortune instead led to lengthy legal battles with British businessman and scholar Thomas Hancock. Obtaining some of Goodyear's vulcanized rubber samples, Hancock managed to reverse engineer part of the process and patent it in Britain before his American counterpart. Although he eventually in the end was given credit for his monumental discovery, Goodyear died a man heavily in debt thanks to, as Slack writes, an incredible capacity for poor business decisions.
Goodyear also had to contend with American businessman Horace H. Day, a man who was Goodyear's opposite in every way. Although he prospered from his connection to Goodyear, Day's hatred for him was exceptional and he vowed to learn the secrets behind vulcanization. At one point he even fought an unsuccessful landmark legal battle that saw no less than Daniel Webster represent Goodyear.
In the end everyone made money from rubber except for Goodyear and his family. The tire company named after him came into existence several years after his death and had no connection to the family. The license fees Goodyear negotiated with manufacturers were unfailing generous to everyone but Goodyear. All the money he earned was poured back into his sometimes oddball ideas for new uses for rubber. Although Goodyear's passion was more of a curse to his family and friends than a blessing, at least until the substance's transformative effects for society began to be felt, his contribution to modern society ranks amongst the most important.
Although Slack's account of Goodyear's life occasionally falters, notably when Goodyear recedes into the background while Slack investigates side issues to the main story, Noble Obsession is still an engaging portrait and tribute to a man who quite literally changed the world overnight. More than a century and a half after the process of vulcanization was discovered many still don't know who the real Charles Goodyear was. Slack's Noble Obsession is a good introduction to one man's passion that made our modern world possible.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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