The early nineteenth century saw tremendous advances in chemistry, with scientists leading teams all across the world to improve both science in general and industrial processes in particular. Leading the charge to improve rubber compounds was Charles Goodyear (born on this day, December 29, 1800, died July 1, 1860) who devoted his life and health to improving rubber compounds. Self taugh Goodyear ran a hardware store in Philadelphia and realized early that improved rubber goods would transform manufacturing.
He toyed with the chemistry of rubber manufacturing for two decades before hitting upon heating the rubber as the most important part of the process by accident. He was awarded a patent for vulcanizing rubber in 1844 for his efforts, though he still did not fully understand the process or what exactly was happening. Enduring backruptcy, jail, and personal tragedy, Goodyear died at the age of 59, collapsing at the news of his daughter’s death and never recovering.
The verb vulcanize was coined between 1820-1844 (several disputed dates are offered) to describe the process of changing something by adding heat or fire, from Vulcan, the Roman god of Fire. By 1846, the word was in wide circulation thanks to Goodyear’s patent. The company that bears his name today was actually founded almost 40 years after his death in honor of his contributions to the science of rubber compounds but also to capitalize on his fame and reputation.
Image of vulcanization of rubber showing polymer bonds and portrait of Goodyear both in the public domain.