Pre-Columbian peoples of South and Central America used rubber for balls, containers, and shoes and for waterproofing fabrics. Mentioned by Spanish and Portuguese writers in the 16th cent., rubber did not attract the interest of Europeans until reports about it were made (1736–51) to the French Academy of Sciences by Charles de la Condamine and François Fresneau. Pioneer research in finding rubber solvents and in waterproofing fabrics was done before 1800, but rubber was used only for elastic bands and erasers, and these were made by cutting up pieces imported from Brazil. Joseph Priestley is credited with the discovery c.1770 of its use as an eraser, thus the name rubber.
The first rubber factory in the world was established near Paris in 1803, the first in England by Thomas Hancock in 1820. Hancock devised the forerunner of the masticator (the rollers through which the rubber is passed to partially break the polymer chains), and in 1835 Edwin Chaffee, an American, patented a mixing mill and a calender (a press for rolling the rubber into sheets).
In 1823, Charles Macintosh found a practical process for waterproofing fabrics, and in 1839 Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanization, which revolutionized the rubber industry. In the latter half of the 19th cent. the demand for rubber insulation by the electrical industry and the invention of the pneumatic tire extended the demand for rubber. In the 19th cent. wild rubber was harvested in South and Central America and in Africa; most of it came from the Pará rubber tree of the Amazon basin.
Despite Brazil's legal restrictions, seeds of the tree were smuggled to England in 1876. The resultant seedlings were sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and later to many tropical regions, especially the Malay area and Java and Sumatra, beginning the enormous East Asian rubber industry. Here the plantations were so carefully cultivated and managed that the relative importance of Amazon rubber diminished. American rubber companies, as a step toward diminishing foreign control of the supply, enlarged their plantation holdings in Liberia and in South and Central America.
During World War I, Germany made a synthetic rubber, but it was too expensive for peacetime use. In 1927 a less costly variety was invented, and in 1931 neoprene was made, both in the United States. German scientists developed Buna rubber just prior to World War II. When importation of natural rubber from the East Indies was cut off during World War II, the United States began large-scale manufacture of synthetic rubber, concentrating on Buna S. Today synthetic rubber accounts for about 60% of the world's rubber production.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.