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A big rubber tree in Mexico

A big rubber tree in Mexico

Olmec people, living in southern Mexico, invented rubber about 1600 BC. It was just as they were beginning to build their empire. Rubber starts out as the sap of a Central American tree – the rubber tree. You tap the tree or cut it down for the sap. Then you mix the sap with juice from a different vine to make rubber. Olmec people used rubber to make rubber balls for sports. The Olmecs got to be famous for their rubber. So the word “Olmec” is the Aztec word for “rubber people.” Aztec people used rubber to make waterproof raincoats by soaking cotton or wool cloth in the sap.

Christopher Columbus brought some rubber from the Caribbean back to Spain with him in the 1400s. But nobody knew what to do with it. In 1736, as part of Fleury‘s modernization campaign, a French scientist brought more samples of rubber to France. And again, nobody had much use for it. But as colonization and slavery made Europe richer, there got to be a lot of European inventors. Then they did think up ways to use rubber.

In 1764, people in England started to use rubber as a pencil eraser. (That’s why we call it “rubber”.) In 1824, they started making rubber raincoats. People called these raincoats “Mackintoshes” after their Scottish inventor. Better raincoats came in 1839 with Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber. You heated rubber with sulfur to make it less sticky. Vulcanized rubber was more able to bounce back to its original shape after being squished. By 1845, a British man had invented the rubber band, but people were still not using rubber that much.

Tapping a rubber tree

Tapping a rubber tree

But that all changed with the British development of cheap steel in the 1850s. Vulcanized rubber solved the problem of how to pad steel machinery. Rubber kept the parts from rubbing against each other and wearing out. Suddenly inventors wanted to use rubber in all these machines. And then they also started to use rubber for hoses and belts, as glue, to seal doors and windows, to make medical pessaries, and in 1868 for bicycle tires.

Most of that rubber came from Brazil. Brazilian plantation owners tried to keep control of the rubber market. They thought they would make a lot of money by enslaving local Tupi people and forcing them to harvest rubber. Many thousands of Tupi died. Meanwhile Brazilians threatened to kill anyone who exported rubber tree seeds.

But in 1876, the British smuggled rubber tree seeds out of Brazil. They started rubber tree plantations in India and in Southeast Asia. Again local people worked for very low wages, or as slaves, producing rubber for Europeans and Americans to use. Africans also started to grow rubber trees in Liberia and NigeriaBrazil lost out, and got poorer, while the British got much richer.

Belgian enforcers cut off this man's hand because he didn't bring them enough rubber.

Belgian enforcers cut off this man’s hand because he didn’t bring them enough rubber.

In the 1880s,  people in Europe and the United States came up with many new uses for rubber – car tires and rubber gloves (1889), especially. So governments looked everywhere for new ways to get rubber. They found that some vines that grew wild in Congo, along the Atlantic coast of Africa, made a sap you could make rubber from.

So they forced the people of Congo to gather as much of this rubber as possible. Millions more people died, either killed by Belgian enforcers or worked to death trying to get enough rubber. In 1908, public pressure forced Belgium to shut down this terrible system.

In 1914, World War I armies needed tons of rubber for their trucks and gas masks, and for condoms (invented in 1912), and Germany didn’t have enough rubber. So rubber helped Britain and the United States to win the war. After the war, rubber only became more important as more people started to drive cars. In the 1930s, companies figured out how to use latex rubber (not vulcanized) for girdles and bras, Ace bandages, and other stretchy fabrics. Colored toy balloons were also a hit. But all of these things needed more and more and more rubber.

A safety bicycle

A safety bicycle

Scientists all over the world worked hard to figure out how to make artificial rubber out of oil. They were only just figuring it out when World War II started and Japan took over the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. That was most of the world’s rubber supply. By the end of the war, the United States and the United Kingdom were using mostly synthetic rubber.

Today most of the world’s natural rubber comes from IndiaChina, and Southeast Asia, where men and women still work very hard collecting rubber tree sap for very low pay. Synthetic – artificial – rubber mostly comes from China, the United States, and Japan. Scientists are looking for ways to make sustainable natural rubber, so we don’t have to use fossil fuels. In 2013, German scientists figured out a way to get rubber from specially bred dandelions. They are hoping to produce sustainable, local rubber that way soon.

Learn by doing: what is made of rubber in your house?
More about Bicycles
The Invention of Steel

Bibliography and further reading about the history of rubber:

History of Congo
Steel home