Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/September 1898/Sketch of Charles Goodyear

1393879Popular Science Monthly Volume 53 September 1898 — Sketch of Charles Goodyear1898Clarke Dooley




IN the rush and whirl toward the end of a century so fertile in discoveries and inventions; when, day by day, we are coming to accept the most marvelous announcements of science and new creations for comfort, for safety, or pleasure with lessening enthusiasm, as if they were only an anticipated right—at such time, when, enjoying so much, the world is already looking forward in reveling wonder to the "Century of Electricity," it were well to single out and assign to their merited place those who have most contributed to make this progress possible. Among them should be ranked Charles Goodyear, the discoverer of vulcanization.

Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut, December 29, 1800. He was the son of Amasa and Cynthia (Bateman) Goodyear, and a descendant of Stephen Goodyear, who was the associate of Governor Eaton, and after him head of the company of London merchants who founded the colony of Kew Haven in 1638. Amasa Goodyear was an inventor of important agricultural implements. The boy observed the good accomplished by some of his father's innovations, and this contributed to his inventive bias. His early years were passed in New Haven. He is described as a studious boy; at ten, serious and manly, with no taste for boyish plays, and, if missed, was generally discovered reading. He had no fondness for machinery, but was always trying to improve articles used in the service of the house and farm; when not at school, was usually occupied with his father's business; was a dutiful son, and at sixteen his father showed his confidence by consulting his judgment. He was early under the influence of strong religious impressions, which were to characterize his life, and desired to enter the ministry, but his father's business constrained him to give up the idea. So from seventeen to twenty-one we find him apprenticed at hardware in Philadelphia.

He then returned to Connecticut to become a partner in the business of his father, and in 1824 married Clarissa Beecher. She was devoted to her husband, and endured without complaint the hard vicissitudes of life which befell them in his long pursuit of his discovery. In 1826 he opened a store in Philadelphia for the sale of hardware, principally the products of their own factory. It was the first for the sale of domestic hardware in the country. Under his management the house acquired an ample fortune, but failed in 1830. It was a great trial to Goodyear, yet he submitted without regrets or loss of courage to what he considered providential.

The next ten years he was repeatedly arrested for debt, not wishing to take the benefit of the bankrupt law. He strove to complete his inventions in hardware, and from the sale of one of them, completed in prison, obtained temporary subsistence. He does not seem to have been depressed, but rather to have grown stronger by reliance on a clear conscience and a lofty purpose. Soon after his reduction from affluence to poverty he decided to devote himself to invention; partly because he felt it would be difficult for him to get rid of the epithets "inventor" and "visionary," so often considered synonymous. Moreover, he is said to have felt himself divinely called by his aptitude, his past course, his circumstances, and a strong inward impulse.

As a schoolboy his attention was drawn to the mysterious property of India rubber. A thin pellicle peeled from a bottle attracted his notice, and suggested that it would be very useful as a fabric if it could be made uniformly so thin and so prepared as to prevent its adhering together and becoming a solid mass, as it soon did from the warmth and pressure of the hand. So his mind was dwelling upon the problem before Thomas Hancock in England made his first unsatisfactory solutions of rubber in oil of turpentine about 1819. The substance began to be known in the United States in 1820; its manufacture to attract attention about 1831.

Modern Europe was unacquainted with rubber until the discovery of America. Uncertainty reigned, some supposing it of animal origin, until 1736. From that time savants busied themselves with it. Hancock introduced the first mechanical processes (from 1818), molding, ink-erasers, etc.; Mackintosh his benzene solution and garments in 1823. The shoes made by the South American Indians had been favorably received in Europe; but, at the critical period in the United States, and likewise from deterioration of the gum, the public was abandoning them and many other articles of rubber fabrication.

In the United States rubber became a subject of investigation, and Dr. Comstock obtained a patent in 1828 for its solution in oil of turpentine and its application to stuffs. The first practical success was attained by E. M. Chaffee (1830), who invented a machine for spreading his oil-of-turpentine solution on cloth. Not to invest in rubber companies about 1833 was thought to indicate a lack of financial insight.

Goodyear read of the success of these companies and, in casting about to help himself, naturally turned to the substance which had earlier attracted his attention. Having made an improvement in the valve of a life-preserver, he returned to the Roxbury Company and tried to sell them his invention. The agent recognized its merit, and, hoping to enlist a clever intelligence in their interests, unfolded to him the startling condition of rubber manufacture in the United States: that the seeming prosperity was not real; that the company had made and sold large quantities of goods in the cool months of 1833-'34, but the following summer the greater part had melted; and that new ingredients and machinery had been vainly tried. He urged him to try to solve the secret, intimating that almost any price would be gladly given. By the end of 1836 the "India-rubber fever" had spent itself, not a solvent company was left, and the very name was detested.

Charles Goodyear at once began his experiments, melting his first gum in the debtors' prison, Philadelphia. He continued them the winter of 1834-'35, making his mixtures with his own hands and rolling them with a rolling pin. He considers it fortunate that rubber is five cents per pound, for as long as he can command that sum he will be able to continue experiments. And he soon discovers that chemists, physicians, and researchers have been baffled in all attempts to make the substance take on the qualities desired. He is thirty-five, bankrupt, and in poor health, yet does not shrink from what to the strongest might well have seemed a superhuman task; and is sustained by "the reflection that what is hidden and unknown, and can not be discovered by scientific research, will most likely be discovered by accident if at all, and by the man who applies himself most perseveringly to the subject." With a friendly loan he makes shoes of fine appearance, but summer finds them reduced to an offensive mass. He thinks there must be some substance to mix with the gum, and tries almost everything he can obtain. None of the learned men indicate the course to be taken; he is on an unknown sea.

He has the best success with magnesia, producing the first white goods; but his beautiful book and piano covers began to ferment, and soon turned brittle and hard. At New Haven he recommenced the work which was to occupy his attention to the end of his life, shoes being the first goods offered, as they were of easy manufacture. This was the beginning of the long-continued family employment with caoutchouc, his eldest daughter making the first pair of vulcanized shoes that were produced. The gum, dissolved in oil of turpentine, colored with lampblack, and hardened with magnesia, was spread upon flannel, and out of this material finely embossed shoes were made. But they proved to be a failure in the winter of 1835-'36 (Trials of an Inventor, by B. K. Peirce). "It was at this time," says his daughter, "that I remember beginning to see and hear about India rubber. It began to appear in little patches upon the window panes and on the dinner plates. Father took possession of our kitchen for a workshop. He would sit hour after hour, working the gum with his hands."

Goodyear thought the difficulty was in the turpentine, was glad to get some barrels of unthickened sap (alcohol had been added), and hoped to dry the gum so that it would not decompose. His Irish workman announced that he had made the important discovery—having given his trousers a thorough coating of the liquid-and was regarded, as may be imagined, with some dismay, until the trousers soon had to be cut off to enable him to rise from his seat by the fire. The inventor was now satisfied that the stickiness belonged to the gum itself, that it was not a result of the process employed. His early failures were made disheartening by the refusal of friends, to whom he had held out high hopes, to extend further aid. He buried a little son, and was obliged to sell his furniture and resort to the pawnbroker, losing the household linen spun by his wife. Yet he did not lose hope, and still felt confident that God was leading him to the accomplishment of his task. This faith sustained him in what is perhaps the most remarkable pursuit of a discovery in the realm of invention.

Alone he reached New York, worn and rusty, his hands covered with "gum elastic," and was supplied with facilities for experiment. He produced good results by boiling the articles, made with magnesia, in quicklime and water, and made thin sheets of gum for the first time (Hancock had done the same). Somebody being asked how Mr. Goodyear might be known, said, "If you meet a man who has on an India-rubber cap, stock, coat, vest, and shoes, with an India-rubber money purse without a cent of money in it, that is he." He obtained a patent for his new process and medals at the fairs of the Mechanics' and American Institutes in 1835. He manufactured articles, but, alas! soon found that weak acid neutralized the lime and rendered them sticky. Discouragement only made him more self-sacrificing and determined. His next improvement was somewhat accidental, led to a better sale of his products, and advanced him to the threshold of his great discovery. Being of aesthetic tastes, he was always striving to improve the appearance of his goods. He tried aqua fortis (commercial HNO3) to remove an excess of bronze from a sheet, and found it dissolved it. Later he examined the piece and found it "cured," as he called it. He does not appear to have known that his acid contained sulphuric acid (North American Review, vol. ci; Le Caoutchouc et la Gutta Percha, E. Chapel, p. 47). The cloth was of superior quality and stood heat sufficiently well for many purposes; so he was happy again. A patent was secured (183G) for his "acid-gas" process, and a partner (William Ballard) with large capital readily found. The fabrication of beautiful articles was begun in Bank Street and on Staten Island, whither he removed his family, and recognition was received from many quarters. Before taking out this patent he was so overcome by noxious vapors in his laboratory that he nearly lost his life. Fortune, however, turned again, and the firm was carried under by his partner's affairs in the panic of 1836-'37. This injured him greatly, being ascribed to want of merit in his goods. Reduced to poverty again, he pawned his umbrella to Mr. Vanderbilt to reach the city. Though in direst need, still he did not give up India rubber. The family was helped back to Staten Island, where he was allowed to print piano covers and ladies' aprons in colors and bronze, the sale of which was of some assistance. Their few teacups served both for table and experiments. Attempts to rally the courage of stockholders failed, owing partly to the general gloom prevailing. His persistent faith in gum elastic and his habit of wearing it, to test and advertise it, led to his becoming an object of ridicule, and he was regarded as a monomaniac. But he had the good fortune to find favor with J. Haskins, of the Roxbury Company, who invited him to Boston and proffered him aid.

Despairing of New York, Goodyear secures a loan, and with choice specimens arrives (toward the end of 1837, says E. Chapel) in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where so much had been made and lost in rubber. Former friends in hardware forward his designs as far as they are able. E. M. Chaffee, whose inventive genius had given the industry its initial movement, becomes specially interested, and advises perseverance. Chaffee, supposing, as had Goodyear, that the adhesiveness arose from the oil of turpentine employed, had invented heavy machinery for dissolving the gum without its use; but, as we have seen, the stickiness was inherent in the substance itself. So, old difficulties reappearing, the revival of trade had proved to be but temporary. Chaffee and Haskins secure assistance for Goodyear, and allow him to use the valuable idle machinery in their factory. Prosperity seems to smile again on the indefatigable experimenter. He invents a new process for making shoes and secures a patent, but sells it to meet immediate wants—a course he was often obliged to pursue, thus removing himself from lasting benefits. He also makes piano covers, table and carriage cloths superior to any that had been produced up to this time in the United States. A demand arises; he is enabled to sell licenses for manufacture, realizing five thousand dollars in a single year; and the family is glad to be united and comfortable in Roxbury. The hopes of the friends of India rubber were rising high.

In the summer of 1838 Goodyear met Nathaniel Hayward, of Woburn, Massachusetts. He had been the foreman of a rubber company, and manufactured on his own account. Hayward had tried powdered charcoal and lime to dry the gum, but now sprinkled sulphur upon it and hardened it by the rays of the sun, claiming to have received the process in a dream. The same discovery was made simultaneously in Germany by Dr. Lüdersdorf. (This chemist was yet to discover that the process only "cured" the surface.) Hayward's discovery had attracted no attention, and had the serious objection of causing a very disagreeable smell whenever employed. Goodyear is surprised to find much the same effect upon the surface of the gum as that produced by his "acid-gas" process. He purchases Hayward's patent of February 24, 1839, gives him employment, and manufactures at Woburn and Roxbury. He and others supposed that the process also "cured" the body of the gum. The increased attention excited by rubber at the time led to an order from the Government for mail bags, and he gave it the widest possible publicity. At last the world shall see what he can do! He hastened to gather his family around him to share in the beckoning prosperity, and his aged parents and two younger brothers, sufferers from his failure, joined him. What was his mortification to find his beautiful mail bags decomposing and dropping from their hooks! In late experiments he had been using coloring matters, white lead, vermilion, etc. Introduced freely into the bag composition, they had proved deleterious, as the gum was then "cured." After his final invention he was enabled to make use of them. He says, "Had it not been for this misfortune from the use of these articles, in all human probability the vulcanizing process would never have been discovered."

Our inventor was now at the stage where he could fabricate thin sheets, somewhat durable. How to produce the effect in a mass of the substance? He feels himself near the solution of the question. Outwardly the worst discouragement besets him. Instead of the large fortune his friends had anticipated, his whole invention seems now to be worthless. The public, so often misled by experimenters, becomes utterly disgusted with the business and the material. From comparative ease and comfort Goodyear is once again reduced to absolute want. Everything salable is sold for the payment of debts; he sees his parents and family deprived of their means of support; he has passed four years in trying to improve a material that has resisted all the ingenuity of investigation, that had ruined so many men, and in which large capital had been lost; and he has given his exclusive attention to the subject. "It was generally agreed," he says, "that the man who could proceed further in a course of this sort is fairly deserving of all the distress brought upon himself." His friends urged him to take up some other business, declaring that he was only bringing discomfort upon himself and others. But he kept on and made a few articles by the old process, by which means and the pawn shops the family was able to live. Had machinery or important capital been necessary, he needs must have relinquished his experiments and abandoned the pursuit of what so many regarded as an ignis fatuus. As it was, with a small sum he made experiment upon experiment, trying to retrieve the lost reputation of his invention. The influence of sulphur upon the surface especially interested him. At Woburn his triumphant discovery was to be accomplished. Parlor became workshop. Here with his family and two assistants he manufactured shoes. The family is described as happy in all their extremities; the mother uncomplaining; the father, amid his cares and the struggle to solve the important problem, always genial.

So, in the spring of 1839, he is trying the effect of heat upon the mail-bag compound. While talking in the kitchen with persons familiar with India rubber, he makes a rapid gesture, and a piece of the gum he holds in his hand accidentally comes in contact with the hot stove. As the substance, in its natural state, melts at a low degree of heat, great was his surprise to find that it had charred without dissolving, and that no part of it was sticky. His daughter says: "As I was passing in and out of the room, I casually observed the little piece of gum which he was holding near the fire, and I noticed also that he was unusually animated by some discovery which he had made. He nailed the piece outside in the intense cold. In the morning he brought it in, holding it up exultingly. He had found it perfectly flexible, as it was when he put it out." When further experiments show that his process "cures" the rubber through, and that the new substance resists heat, cold, and the action of acids, and before he has convinced any one of the value of his invention, "I felt myself," he says, "amply repaid for the past, and quite indifferent as to the trials of the future." Two years passed before he was able to convince any one outside of his family of the importance of his discovery. The world had to be shown, by time and varying temperatures, that "metallization" (as the process was first called) was effective. This was a bitter period for the Goodyears. Their condition became distressing: potatoes gathered before they were grown, school books sold to keep the wolf from the door. Goodyear feared to die before finishing his task. So he struggled on to determine the conditions for best results, boiling his mixtures in saucepans, suspending them from the teakettle, often working far into the night. His yellowed, haggard look and worn rubber coat gave him a wild look. It seemed as if his important secret was to perish with him. A thousand failures were to discover defects. The operation required exactness and promptitude; one condition a failure, all was spoiled; and often he could not apply the heat soon enough. So he saw the necessity of reliable apparatus. Rattier and Guibal, of Paris, made him an offer for his "acid-gas" process, which would have immediately relieved his pressing wants; yet he refused, saying he was perfecting another which would render it worthless. The incident accords with the character of the man. When gloom hung low above the Goodyear cottage, a ray of sunlight came in means for the inventor to reach New York, where William Rider advanced a certain amount for experiments. His family was freed from want, and better conditions for success were obtained.

Before the new firm was well under way Rider failed, and it lost its capital. Goodyear was also manufacturing, at Springfield, Massachusetts, sheets of vulcanized rubber and shirred goods for suspenders and elastics. These were having a large sale. Now that success was attained, his brother-in-law advanced capital to continue the business.

About to continue his enterprise in 1841, he has his last experience with the debtors' prison in the United States. Yielding to remonstrances, he took the bankrupt law; but, when fortune favored him, one of the first things he did was to pay off thirty-five thousand dollars' worth of old claims. He was in no hurry to seek a patent, considering his invention safe, and was more intent on its perfection for the good of humanity than regardful of his personal interests. So Hancock, in England, scraping Goodyear's samples and smelling the sulphur, persevered until he rediscovered the process, and first obtained a patent, November 21, 1843. He and Brockedon (who secured the samples) named the operation "vulcanization." It was ten years after beginning his experiments before Goodyear felt able to produce perfectly vulcanized rubber with economy and certainty. Then, apprised by his agent (Newton, who hastily took patents in his own name in France, January 8, and in England, January 30, 1844) of what Hancock had done, he took out an American patent, June 15, 1844. The same summer he introduced his "steam process" for dissolving without solvents. It cost several years of trials to get rid of the liability of fabrics to peel off, but he succeeded at last by mixing fiber with the gum. He considered this invention only second to vulcanization. When he had brought the fabrication of shoes to sufficient perfection, he disposed of his rights for one half cent a pair. Thus, when he should have been in condition to enjoy the fruits of his discoveries, he was harassed by financial cares to the end of his days. An idea of the business he opened up to others may be formed from the fact that the companies holding the shoe rights paid Daniel Webster a fee of twenty-five thousand dollars for his triumphant defense in 1852. It was the last legal argument Webster made, and has been considered a fitting close to his brilliant professional career (The Green Bag, vol. vii). Webster's story will serve to keep in mind the effects of cold on unvulcanized rubber: receiving a present of a cloak and hat, he one day stood the stiffened cloak on the veranda, the hat on top. Several worthy citizens, passing afterward, respectfully saluted the strange figure, thinking it was the sage himself.

After vulcanization was an established fact and patented in Europe and the United States, Goodyear worked on for sixteen years in the effort to apply rubber to new and especially humanitarian uses—life-saving appliances on water, sails, water beds, etc. In personal expenditures reasonable, he was very prodigal in his experiments—often from the desire to save time or to test his ideas upon a sufficiently large scale. It was his habit to have light and writing material at hand at night, and thus many things were recorded by his own hand, or by dictation, that would otherwise have been lost. A prey to dyspepsia, liable to attacks of gout, and delicate as he was, his achievement is the more remarkable. He received over sixty patents, yet his chief benefit, relatively, may be said to have been the consciousness of working for mankind. His rights were infringed; litigation and experiments consumed large sums. "No inventor, probably," says the commissioner, granting an extension of patent in 1858, "has ever been so harassed, so trampled upon, so plundered by that sordid and licentious class of infringers known in the parlance of the world as 'pirates.' The spoliation of their incessant guerrilla warfare upon his defenseless rights has unquestionably amounted to millions." He spent much time and money upon rubber sails, which, from greater impermeability, were to be smaller, from nonliability to mildew, more durable; and, being nonfreezing, to prove a great relief to sailors on northern coasts; and he died in the conviction that they would supersede all others. Captain Popham, on whose ship they were tried, accorded them high praise. Goodyear's experiments also laid the basis for hard-rubber manufacture. Gail Borden, famous for his condensed-milk process, once said to one of Mr. Goodyear's sons: "After experimenting unsuccessfully so many years, I should have given up in despair if I had not read a sketch of your father's life."

In 1853 he published, for friends and private circulation, and made entirely of rubber. Gum Elastic and its Varieties, with a Detailed Account of its Application and Uses, and of the Discovery of Vulcanization, copies of which, we are informed, are still in existence. With better instincts for business and willingness to stop and gather the fruits of his labors, as friends often urged, Goodyear might have realized an immense fortune. But almost everywhere he was unfortunate in protecting his rights. Hancock had to admit that he saw the first sample of vulcanized rubber in the hands of Goodyear's agent; yet, both in England and France (where Hancock's process had been introduced), rights were lost through technical difficulties, He spent thirty thousand dollars on his beautiful exhibit at the London Exposition in 1851, and obtained a medal. In 1852 he went with his family to Europe to establish his patents and improve and introduce articles manufactured under them. His wife died in a foreign land, and in 1854 he married Fanny Wardell, of London. Foreseeing the importance of hard rubber, he was the more easily induced to make a lavish display at the Paris Exposition in 1855, where, at an expense of fifty thousand dollars, he exhibited inlaid rubber furniture, jewelry, ornaments, carved caskets, painted panels, etc., obtaining a grand medal, and later a ribbon of the Legion of Honor.

The exposition and his agents' mismanagement abroad and dishonesty at home drew him into greater financial difficulties, and he was imprisoned in Paris for debt. Lack of experienced workmen and necessary heavy machinery in Vienna, the reversal of a favorable decision by a French court, failures in the United States affecting European houses, and a decline in rubber manufacture, all contributing to embarrass his condition, he was obliged to renew his loans on ruinous terms. From April, 1856, to May, 1858, he resided at Bath, worried by debts, a prey, even then, of the pawnbroker, tormented by the gout, yet still experimenting with life-saving appliances. He would have been extremely poor had not his patent been extended for seven years soon after. By the winter of 1859, besides his home in New Haven, he had a residence in Washington fitted with a large bath for trying the life-saving boats and apparatus upon whose perfection he was so intent. Thus, when he might at last have rested, he could not, as his mind was constantly dwelling on the needs and perils of mankind. It is curious that he should have been last employed with a life-preserver, the subject which had engaged his attention at the outset. With a friend he started for Connecticut to see his dying daughter, going by steamer, on account of his delicate health, as far as New York. On reaching that city they received intelligence of her death. As Mr. Goodyear was unable to continue the journey, they repaired to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where he afterward died, as the church bells were ringing, Sunday morning, July 1, 1860. Of nine children, five survived him.

Some of the published biographical sketches of the discoverer convey the idea that he left an insolvent estate. From his surviving son, Prof. William H. Goodyear, we learn that the greater part of the last fifteen years of his father's life was passed in comfortable circumstances; and that his estate, though his affairs were somewhat complicated at the time of his death, was worth several hundred thousand dollars, the greater part of which was ultimately invested profitably in the well-known Goodyear shoe-sewing machine (an invention improved by Charles Goodyear, fils). An effort was made to extend his patent a second time for the benefit of his family. But it was not very difficult for those grown rich out of his discovery to point out improvidence—particularly in his later years—and so, with the cry of "Monopoly," raised in the press, the project was frustrated. The whole tenor of his life shows him to have been a man of most honorable intentions. He gave cheerfully and unsparingly for benevolence when he had the means. Further, it goes almost without saying that he never neglected those who had assisted him, and that he promoted their welfare, and that of his relatives, to the extent of his ability. Palissy, the celebrated rediscoverer of white enameling, knew that the process had been accomplished before. But Charles Goodyear was not in the same position in regard to vulcanization, and his chief merit may, therefore, be said to have been his remarkable faith, in its final accomplishment, which inspired his untiring pursuit of his idea under the most adverse conditions. From France, in Le Caoutchouc et la Gutta Percha, by E. Chapel, comes a note of worthy appreciation and a suggestion which should find echo on this side of the ocean: "Sufficient account has not been taken, in the United States, of the character of this researcher; it is owing to him that we have been able to take so great advantage of caoutchouc, that its employment has become indispensable in medicine, in chemistry, in physics, in electricity—in a word, in all the arts and sciences, in which, in many cases, it permits the realization of progress of the highest importance. We should consider Goodyear one of the benefactors of his race, and must regret that no statue to that end has been raised to this Bernard de Palissy of the New World."

  1. See also India Rubber and Gutta Percha, by the writer. Popular Science Monthly, March, 1897.