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The Goodyear Story: An Inventor's Obsession and the Struggle for A Rubber Monopoly


Editors Note: I thought that you would enjoy this preview of what is a very interesting look at the person whose name became a household brand...enjoy the book and let me know what you think.

Prologue Of A New Book By Richard Korman

The Great Exhibition of 1851 triggered a wave of tourism, talk, worry, wonder, jealousy and exultation. Its London opening on May 1 drew twenty-five thousand guests to the great greenhouse-like exhibition hall. Women in bell-shaped dresses of silk and satin, shoulders covered by shawls, lined the edges of the warm orange-red carpet surrounding the small platform prepared for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Men in waistcoats stood behind the women. Thousands looked down from galleries hung from the sides of the long hall, and more waited outside in London's Hyde Park, hoping to get in. It was the beginning of the most splendid summer ever known in the world's most powerful nation.

The sun broke through the overcast as a procession of nine carriages from Buckingham Palace pulled up on Rotten Row. The vast, translucent enclosure of the hall—a great old elm and other trees had been left inside—easily swallowed the gathered audience and reduced the statues, potted palms and glass fountain at ground level to props on a spacious stage. Cheers and a flourish of trumpets erupted at the sight of the royal couple entering through the huge bronzed iron gates. A youthful-looking Queen Victoria felt "much-moved" by what she later called "a sensation I shall never forget." The sight was magical—so vast, so glorious, so touching, the Queen said, that she felt "filled with devotion."

"God bless my dearest Albert," the Queen wrote of her husband, who had conceived the event, "and my dear country, which has shown itself so great today."

The unusual building, dubbed the Crystal Palace, and the large number of visitors converging on London produced anxiety as well as wonderment. The King of Prussia had written Prince Albert to find out if it would be safe to visit. Albert conveyed with sarcasm all the doomsday predictions: powerful gusts could conceivably shake the Crystal Palace's galleries from its walls; a scarcity of food might starve the overcrowded city; the various races of people coming into contact with each other could bring back the Black Death.

Royalty might fret, but the public had no qualms. In May, 735,000 people arrived; in June, 1.13 million. The peak came in July, with 1.31 million. The Royal Commission gradually lowered the price of a ticket from a pound to pennies, and in August the gate was 1.02 million; in September, 1.15 million; finally, with the end of the exhibit in sight, 841,000 people crammed into the Crystal Palace during the first eleven days of October. Only a few years earlier such "popular movements" would have "been pronounced on the highest authority most dangerous to the safety of the state," said one writer. But the novelist Charlotte Bronte found the 30,000 people on hand one day so restrained they seemed like a "living tide" that "rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance." During the entire exhibition police charged only twenty-five people with crimes, all for pick pocketing or petty larceny in the exhibit stalls.

Bumpkins from English provinces rode the new steam railroads to London and were amazed by what they saw. "When I entered at the door of the south transept I beheld a sight which absolutely bewildered me," said a man from Nottingham. "I gazed with astonishment. I knew not what direction to take." A more sophisticated writer said the view down the hall's long transept seemed "more like the fabled palace of Vathek than a structure reared in a few months by mortal hands." And an English clergyman echoed the theme of man's mastery of the world around him: "That majestic palace of iron and glass! Awhile ago, its pillars were coarse rude particles, clodded together in some deep recess of the earth, and its transparent plates were sandy masses, without beauty or coherence. How a little fire and a little art have changed them!"

Conceived by Prince Albert in 1849 as an expression of international amity, the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations would in his mind be the "true test of the point of development at which the whole of mankind had arrived." In Albert's view, a turning point in history had been reached in which friendly economic rivalry among nations would replace warfare. But the exhibition was also conceived as a contest in which juries would rate products and award prizes, and the English fully expected to triumph in many categories. England's artwork was cluttered in the style of the time with curlicues, cherubs and historic motifs. Its industrial exhibits thrummed and clattered in their display stalls, powered by a steam generator just outside the hall. England was especially proud of its textile machinery, including a self-acting spinning mule and a huge Jacquard loom.

Decades earlier machines like these would had been concealed almost as closely as state secrets, and with good cause. The breakaway colonies in America had successfully stolen the designs of England's early innovative textile machinery, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton actually having promoted industrial pilfering to build up his country's industry. U.S. manufacturers also copied most of their early machine tools, except for milling machines, from British prototypes. Not merely content to steal English ideas, the United States germinated its own energetic culture of industrial creativity. Spurred by a revised patent law, Americans had filed 2,193 patent applications in 1850, triple the number of a decade earlier. This burst of ingenuity helped propel the backward colonies from a society of farmers into a modern industrial power in fifty short years—an economic transformation unequaled until the advent of post-World War II Japan. In the next fifty years Americans would create the greatest industrial nation the earth had known. Evidence of this future greatness could be seen in the Crystal Palace, and the English took jealous and admiring note of what their cousins from across the ocean had brought to London.

As the five hundred U.S. displays were arriving, the false teeth, ice-making machine, hand-cranked dishwasher, cornhusk mattress, artificial eyes and limbs, printing press and cast-iron stove revealed a pragmatic frame of mind. Some ingenuity was also evident in ideas like the metal coffin equipped with a pump for removing the air inside. A human body, it was said, could be preserved for ages without decay. Other inventions made more lasting impressions. A salesman named Alfred C. Hobbs flabbergasted the makers of locks that had guarded the vaults of the Bank of England by picking them in less than half an hour, which led the bank to order a set of locks from Hobbs's company. A showman named Samuel Colt urged visitors to test-fire his six-shooter and convinced the London Times that his "revolvers even threaten to revolutionize military tactics as completely as the original discovery of gunpowder." A Virginia farmboy named Cyrus Hall McCormick displayed a contraption that the English press at first mocked as a cross between a flimsy chariot, a treadmill and something resembling a "flying machine." But when it had been tested in a wet field and the English saw that it could cut and bundle more wheat than any other contrivance in existence, the Times reversed itself and declared the reaper worth the cost of the entire exhibition.

One of the most celebrated American exhibitors—notorious was the word his competitors would have used—bent on outdoing the English was a former Philadelphia hardware store owner named Charles Goodyear. He epitomized the spirit of the upstart American technologists, but was also, as some of his American colleagues saw, "a different breed." Little more than five feet tall, he had a complexion the color of buckskin and slightly outturned ears. Behind his square jaw a thin line of whiskers fringed his neck. That he intended to stand apart from his countrymen could be seen in the fact that he installed his main exhibit of his vulcanized rubber on the second level of the Northeast Gallery, well away from them. It was immediately noticeable as "costly in character, but very pure in taste," said one writer, an elaborate display that would draw interest to that part of the hall. Clearly Charles Goodyear was using his presence at the Great Exhibition to establish himself once and for all as one of the century's leading "men of progress," an identity he had been chasing much of his life.

Many of the other Americans and a few of the English "technologists" displaying their innovations in the Crystal Palace were aware of Goodyear and regarded his story with awe and censure. The precocious first child of a hardworking Connecticut farmer-blacksmith and button maker, Goodyear was groomed for a career in business almost from birth. At seventeen he entered a hardware store apprenticeship and eventually, in partnership with his father and brother, set up a shop in Philadelphia that seemed to flourish. Then suddenly the business plunged into financial ruin and his family returned to the blacksmith's trade, but with Goodyear burdened by a huge debt.

When Charles Goodyear was just a boy, there were few signs in the United States of the manufacturing might that was developing in England. Industry consisted largely of water-powered mills and crafts pursued in barns and sheds. Americans were dependent on Europe for most of their manufactured goods. But some heard distant echoes as the revolutionary improvements in steam engines and steam-powered boats and trains began to transform the country. American mechanics became obsessed with "ingenuity" as much as the "rugged individualism" that was also part of the emerging national identity. The virtue of industriousness, technology and prosperity became for many Americans almost "providentially linked," in the words of historian Gordon Wood. Goodyear made a conscious decision to become a full-time inventor at a time when the New England tinkerer still had an exalted place in the American imagination.

As he searched for the technological handhold that would give him a place in the world of invention, Goodyear discovered what he quickly convinced himself could be a miracle substance. It was rubber, and he believed that if he could unlock its potential it would change his fortunes and change the world as well. With no background in the developing science of chemistry, he was poorly prepared for the task. Although Goodyear understood that carbon in coal united with iron to become steel, he knew nothing of molecular science. He never fully understood that what he eventually accomplished by adding chemicals and heat to the pasty raw rubber—the creation of a thermoset material through the cross-linking of rubber's long, chainlike molecules—was one of the auspicious early milestones of the new age of synthetics. Over the next century technologists would make the journey from manipulating natural chain molecules called polymers to custom-designing synthetic ones, including some that serve as "scaffolds" inside the human body on which doctors can build artificial tissue. All Charles Goodyear knew was that he had a versatile miracle material that he at first called Heated Metallic Gum Composition and another time lightheartedly described as the Mighty Elastic Substance. Using his process, boot- and shoe-makers set a new standard for quality that an English paper proclaimed would "do away with the risk of corns and bunions, the cure of which has sprung into an actual profession." Rubber tents and capes kept thousands of Civil War soldiers dry. Still another product line, made quietly but prolifically, consisted of condoms and diaphragms.

In the 1830s and 40s, as he struggled to find the way to change rubber, Goodyear became obsessed with his miracle substance. He dressed in rubber and extolled its virtues to anyone who would listen. He had the mentality of the wildcatters who would soon populate the Pennsylvania oil fields. His spendthrift borrowing and spending and his unwillingness to return to safer means of earning a living exposed his family to terrible hardship and set events in motion that cost some of them their lives. To justify his family's suffering, he rationalized his economic plight—his "embarrassments," as people of the time called such misfortune—as a test of his Christian faith. Yet in his suffering and perseverance, his compulsive pursuit of his dream, he made himself a living embodiment of the age of invention. The Goodyear story, told and retold, held tremendous appeal for Americans who feared his brush with debtor's prison but admired his self-made success. The story inspired inventor Gail Borden, an American who was also at the Great Exhibition displaying his dried-meat biscuit. "I should have given up in despair if I had not read a sketch of your father's life," he told one of Goodyear's sons.

Goodyear's obsession seemed justified by the Great Exhibition. In Horace Greeley's words, "India Rubber was everywhere" in the Crystal Palace, with perhaps ten English, French and American companies showing their wares. The Macintosh exhibit held special significance for Goodyear and set up a drama of competition within the show. Well known for its water-repellent coats, or "Macks," the company had dominated English rubber making for twenty years thanks to partner Thomas Hancock's secret rubber-grinding machine. When Goodyear was still struggling to feed his family, he sent samples of his heated gum to Macintosh & Co., hoping it would pay to use it. Instead, Hancock made Goodyear the victim of a transatlantic intellectual property theft and claimed credit for the innovation. But if Goodyear looked like a victim in this situation, he looked like the victimizer almost at the same time. Another rival with an exhibit in London, Massachusetts-born Horace Day, sought to discredit the inventor in his own country. Day was challenging the validity of Goodyear's U.S. rubber patent and considered him the original "confidence man."

Goodyear had come to London to show once and for all that whatever his rivals might claim, he was the true inventor of the miracle material. Arriving that spring, he rented a suite of rooms, borrowed or bought a horse and carriage and hired a driver. Sparing no expense, Goodyear hired architect Stannard Warne to design his exhibit.

Sometime after the May 1 opening, Goodyear bought tickets for his wife, Clarissa, and four of their five children, and instructed them to meet him outside. Waiting until the last minute, as was his habit, Goodyear came out to meet them near a large statue of a mounted Richard the Lion-Hearted. Thousands of visitors clustered near the entrance. Clarissa, wearing a yellow silk dress with a blue shawl, reached up to take her husband's arm. The Goodyears fed themselves into the currents of humanity and entered.

Charles Goodyear stepped unevenly—his gout was acting up—and used a walking stick with a sculpted hard rubber handle. He directed the family to look down the long transept. Sculptured figures (his teenage daughter Cynthia squelched a giggle at the naked forms) stood in many places in the hall. Charles turned his head to the right to show Clarissa the east end of the nave and the United States of America department, where mannequins of Native Americans stood in front of a teepee. Looking left, Clarissa saw the display from England and her colonies. The family proceeded through the exhibition hall, through the Medieval Court, with its imposing neo-Gothic furniture, past the Turkish department, with its kafeyah-capped attendants. Then they stopped awhile at a refreshment stand for iced syrups. Still, they had not set eyes on Charles' exhibit. Finally, Goodyear led his family up a staircase to a gallery on the second floor. There was a canopied suite with the word "Goodyear" above it.

Unlike the Macintosh exhibit, Goodyear didn't just display a handful of rubber objects, but created a vision of a rubber-made world. An entire facade of hard rubber had been constructed across the face of his exhibit. On stepping inside, visitors found they were looking at walls and ceilings covered with rubber veneer and furniture cast in or coated with rubber. Hydrogen-filled rubber balloons of all colors, some as big as six feet in diameter, floated in the air, and portraits painted on rubber sheet hung on the walls. Arrayed in display cases were rubber plates, trays, boxes (some with inlaid pearl), bracelets, brooches, rings, fans, picture frames, eye glasses, ink stands, paper folders, pencil cases, cups and buttons. In other cases Goodyear placed medical instruments, canes, umbrellas, combs and brushes. Rubber curtains and fabrics hung from the walls. Potted rubber plants sat on pedestals on either side of the entrance.

Goodyear had spent about $30,000 dollars on his creation. It was an astonishing amount, but it paid off. He was one of only three Americans, along with McCormick and Borden, to take home the top award, a Council Medal. The once-desperate man shambling around in the blistered rubber jacket had placed himself among the great inventors of his time. Soon, his licensees would become one of the most powerful monopolies of antebellum America. His legend would outlive the monopoly that bore his name and his own fluctuating personal fortune. In the end his name would become synonymous with the heroic, solitary inventor who risked everything for his ideas. The name became so valuable that a new generation of rubber entrepreneurs would steal it to create an air of legitimacy for their rubber company, just in time for the age of the automobile. But while almost everyone knew his name and miraculous discovery, few knew the rest of the Goodyear story.

Editors Note: I thought that you would enjoy this preview of what is a very interesting look at the person whose name became a household brand...enjoy the book and let me know what you think.