Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 17.djvu/822

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INDIA-RUBBER, or caoutchouc, possesses properties so widely different from those of most other substances that it became an object of very great interest as soon as it made its appearance in the civilized world, and its industrial importance has rapidly increased as the knowledge of its remarkable characters and manifold applicability has become more extended. At the present time, caoutchouc holds such an important position with regard to the economy of modern arts and manufactures, that, were it suddenly to be withdrawn from circulation, many minor industries would in consequence cease to exist; while numerous large and important branches of handicraft would languish until arrangements could be made to adapt their operations to the altered circumstances.

It is, however, during the last forty years that India-rubber has enjoyed its greatest triumphs as an industrial agent—that is to say, since the art of vulcanization was discovered and perfected by the labors of Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and others.

The earliest rumor of the existence of caoutchouc reached Europe nearly five hundred years ago; the first visit of Columbus to Hayti having brought to light the fact that the natives of this island were in the habit of making playing-balls of an elastic gum. Nothing more appears to have been heard of India-rubber until Torquemada, rather over two hundred and fifty years ago, described the Mexican Indians as not only making playing-balls of India-rubber, but also as fabricating helmets, shoes, water-proof fabrics, and other articles of elastic gum. This writer gives some details as to the collection of the juice and the making of various articles from it, thus giving us the first view of the India-rubber manufacture as a branch of industry. We do not hear, hewever, of samples of India-rubber reaching Europe until long after this, and little more appears to have been learned regarding the substance until the celebrated French naturalist, La Condamine, made a communication to the Academy of Sciences at Paris concerning caoutchouc, he having had ample opportunities of studying the subject in Para. In the memoir in question, La Condamine gives very detailed particulars regarding the Para India-rubber tree, the collection and treatment of the juice, and the methods made use of by the natives for the production of various articles of caoutchouc. He tells us that the substance in question was used for making torches, these being only an inch and a half in diameter by two feet long, and yet burning for twelve hours. Again we hear of the use of India-rubber for the making of playing-balls, and it appears that the natives were in the habit of using enema or injection bottles made of caoutchouc.

  1. Lecture before the London Society of Arts.