100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Vulcanized Rubber
Year of Invention: 1839

What Is It? The first strong, useful rubber product.

Who Invented It? Charles Goodyear (in Philadelphia)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Rubber boots, rubber raincoats, rubber tires, rubber bands, elastic, rubber soles on tennis shoes, foam rubber, rubber gaskets that seal our plumbing, rubber tires, rubber seals for refrigerators, rubber insulation on electrical wires—rubber is one of the most important substances in our modern lives. Without rubber, no car, airplane, ship, elevator, or factory would run.

We depend on rubber in every location and activity of our daily lives—home, car, school, work, and play. During World War II, shortages of rubber threw the country into a panic. If the country ran out of rubber, officials feared that the national economy would grind to a halt.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Rubber comes from the milky sap of rubber trees that grow most abundantly in the rain forests of South America. Spanish explorers found that Aztec and Mayan communities made extensive use of liquid rubber for waterproofing clothes and buildings and wrote that these native communities also played with rubber balls.

Those explorers brought rubber back to Europe. But rubber had two big problems. It became brittle when cold, tending to crack and break. It also grew sticky, oozy, and could melt when too warm. It had a narrow temperature range over which it behaved as it was supposed to.

Scientists went to work, experimenting to fix the problem, but made virtually no progress. In 1770, English scientist Joseph Priestly discovered that soft rubber would “rub” out pencil marks. He is the one who named it “rubber.”

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