Part 4 in the series Inspirational People

charles_goodyearIt strikes me that today’s greatest weapon against AIDS , the condom, was made possible by a man who ended up in jail 6 times for unpaid debts, almost 150 years ago. Charles Goodyear (21 December 1800 – 1 July 1860) is the man who researched and developed the manufacturing process for making rubber durable and usable as we know it today.

After some time experimenting with gum, he went to New York and noticed the poor quality of tubes used to inflate lifebuoys (life preservers). He went home to Philadelphia and made better tubes with the gum he had been experimenting with and made a demonstration to the managers of Roxbury Rubber Company. They were impressed.

Roxbury told Goodyear that his product had to be tested for a year prior to approval. To his surprise, thousands of dollars in goods were returned because the gum was rotting. It is then that Goodyear made up his mind to experiment more with gum.

The first major breakthrough

When he returned home, an investor had him arrested and imprisoned! While he was in prison, he experimented with Indian rubber, magnesia and turpentine and discovered that that concoction removed the stickiness from the gum. He had made a breakthrough – or so he thought. After his release, he made a water resistant pair of shoes with the assistance of his wife and children.  Impressing some investors, he got access to some more funding.

However, it was not long until he discovered that the gum became sticky again. At this point, his investors pulled the plug on his project, grinding all research and development to a halt.  It was a waste of money and time to his investors. NEVERTHELESS, GOODYEAR WAS NOT DETERRED!

The Second major breakthrough

After selling his furniture and children’s schoolbooks for some cash, he continued experimenting with the white sticky stuff [gum].  He discovered that adding nitric acid to the rubber cured the surface.  Albeit the fumes from this process almost suffocated him, this was a great discovery that led to a partnership with an old friend.

He received world acclamation for this discovery. They opened a factory and produced clothing, rubber shoes, life preservers and a whole range of rubber products. Just when things were looking good, the panic of 1837 totally obliterated their fortunes and he was left penniless (again).

Goodyear made a good friend in J Haskins, who lent him money to continue with his vision. He found newer and better ways of producing rubber shoes. The problem was that the rubber could not withstand extreme temperatures and acid, and would always become sticky and decompose after time.

The Vulcanization process

Goodyear met Nathaniel Hayward, who had also been researching this material. Hayward showed Goodyear the progress he had made and they agreed that Hayward would patent that process, and Goodyear would purchase a license to use it. Hayward had solved the stickiness problem by adding sulphur!

At this point Hayward and Goodyear won a lucrative contract to produce mailbags. To their horror, these bags were returned at the signs of decomposition. Goodyear was penniless yet again and pressed!

Goodyear discovered that exposing his compound to an open flame charred by also left parts of the concoction perfectly cured and more elastic. He perfected this process, and later patented it as the famous process for manufacturing vulcanized rubber!

Goodyear was certain that he had solved the puzzle and invited friends to see his work, however investors had listened to him once too many times. He and his family suffered from the extreme consequences of poverty. Throughout their marriage (with his wife), they lost six children in infancy and a son who was slightly older.

Goodyear, together with his brother in law started a small factory producing rubber products. He went to Europe in 1852 only to find that Thomas Hancock claimed to have invented the vulcanization process and patented it in Britain. Goodyear contested the claims, but lost the legal battle.  After a lifetime of work, it was claimed by someone else…

He died in 1860. Almost 4 decades later, Frank Seiberling founded the Goodyear tire and Rubber Company (that we know today). Although Goodyear never lived to taste the fruits of his hard work, he was later (after his death) amoung 6 who were selected in the National Inventors Hall of Fame…

The life story of Charles Goodyear is close to my heart because, firstly it shows that when one is completely in love with what he or she does, no matter what happens, they never quit.  This is a story of an obsessed man.  For one who has never been obsessed with anything, it is a story of absurdity especially given the heartbreaking ending.  I choose to see it as a story of sheer determination.

Vusi Sindane