Charles Goodyear's obsession began one auspicious day in New York.
He’d always been a tinkerer and a new “miracle” substance, rubber, had caught his fancy. He’d developed an improved valve for a rubber life preserver he’s seen in a New York shop. When he proudly showed the shop owner his invention, the man let Goodyear in on a secret. This new miracle substance was about to go bust.
"The great flaw of this miracle substance- rubber- had been exposed, which is when natural rubber gets hot it melts, and when it gets cold, it turns very brittle and cracks," said Charlie Slack, author of Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century.
"So, the man in the store said to Goodyear, 'If you really want to do something, you'll find a way to prevent this from happening.’"
The challenge stuck a chord with Goodyear, and he set out on a quest that would consume him for the rest of his life.
"It was really a terrible time for him and for his family," Slack said. "They were living in poor circumstances and the house reeked of rubber and other chemicals. Goodyear himself was thrown into debtors prison from time to time."
Goodyear moved to Woburn, Massachusetts, where he got an offer to work out of the failing Eagle India Rubber Company. That’s when it finally happened.
"He was in Woburn and had mixed rubber with sulfur and brought it in contact with a stove accidentally, and came back later and found that the substance had changed," Slack said. "It was now impervious to heat. It was impervious to cold."
The process, called vulcanization, would be a game changer. But as Goodyear refined his process, he made a crucial misstep. The center of the Industrial Revolution at the time was England, and an English patent meant big bucks from investors. Samples of Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber had made their way to England, and into the hands of another inventor, Thomas Hancock.
"He essentially went to his home laboratory and reverse-engineered Goodyear’s invention and beat Goodyear to the English patent office by a matter of weeks," Slack said.
But in June 1844, Goodyear did receive the U.S. patent for his invention — and that really should have made Goodyear rich. But while others would make fortunes licensing his process and churning out viable products, Goodyear would spend the rest of his days frittering his money away, tinkering with rubber.
"Doorknobs, rubber paper, book, balloons, rubber furniture, rubber boats — you name it and Goodyear thought that rubber was the answer," Slack said.
Ironically, one thing Goodyear didn’t invent is the item that his name is most closely associated with today: The automobile tire. To be fair, Goodyear was long dead before the first automobile was invented.
"Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. was actually used by a couple of brothers form Ohio who wanted to acknowledge Goodyear’s invention and also the Goodyear name sounded a lot like Goodrich, which was a larger and more successful rubber company at that time," Slack said.
Goodyear himself would never see a profit from his invention, and died — in debt — at the age of 59.
"Goodyear was an obsessed man. He’s one of these driven characters that you admire from afar," Slack said. "But there’s something beautiful about him as a person because he thought that this was a gift from god through him — he was very religious and he stuck with it. It gave him this enormous, awesome strength and, lo and behold, he persevered and he did change the world."
Charles Goodyear: the man who unlocked the mysteries of rubber used in everything from cars to planes, elevators to refrigerators, electrical wires to balls for kids. None of them would have been possible without vulcanized rubber, invented right here in Woburn, and patented in the U.S., 170 years ago this week.