Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization

Charles Goodyear ignored all his critics and developed the groundbreaking technique of vulcanization at great personal cost.
Christopher McFadden
Charles GoodyearMattes/Wikimedia Commons

Charles Goodyear was an American inventor, self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer who discovered the vulcanization process for rubber. The well-known company Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company were named in his honor after his death.

Charles was born on the 29th December 1800 in New Haven, Connecticut. His groundbreaking work on rubber would begin with his experimentation in 1834. 5 years later he would accidentally discover the process known as vulcanization.

Despite the significance of his discovery, Goodyear would struggle to patent vulcanized rubber until 1844. He would die penniless on the 19th July 1860 in New York City. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company were founded in his name in 1898.

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Engraving of Charles Goodyear. Source: Howcheng/Wikimedia Commons

Early Years

Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut. He was the son of Amasa and Cynthia Bateman Goodyear and the eldest of six children. His father was actually a descendant of Stephen Goodyear. Stephen, from London, England, was supposed to be one of the founders of the New Haven Colony in 1638.

Charles would leave home in 1814 to travel to Philadelphia to learn the hardware business. Here he would work very hard until he was 21 when he returned Connecticut. On his return, Charles entered into a partnership with his father's business in Naugatuck. 

The father and son team would then begin manufacturing ivory and metal buttons as well as other agricultural implements.

In August of 1824, Charles would marry Clarissa Beecher. A few years later the young family once again moved to Philadelphia. Here Charles opened his first hardware store. It was here that the majority of his early career was to be spent.

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Source: Goodyear

At this point in his life, Charles specialized in the manufacture of agricultural implements. At this point in time, there had been a distrust of domestically made farming implements. Most consumers preferred to import goods from the British Empire. This district was beginning to wane and Charles would find he was soon running a rather successful business.

His success grew and grew until his health would fail him in 1829. Charles was struck down with dyspepsia. This was not to be the end of his woes, however. A failure of a number of business endeavors also seriously harmed his firm. His company struggled on but were eventually required to enter bankruptcy.

Soon after in around 1831 and 1832, Charles Goodyear would hear about gum elastic. He became obsessed with the material, reading every article that appeared in newspapers on it.

Rubber the wonder material

A U.S. firm, the Roxbury India Rubber Company based in Boston had also begun to experiments with this new material. They believed they had found ways of manufacturing goods from it.

Some of these early Roxbury goods caught Goodyear's attention. Soon after, Goodyear would visit New York and find himself introduced to life preservers. It struck him, immediately, that the tube used for inflation was not very effective or well made.

When he returned home to Philadelphia he began making tubes with his own design valves. He would once again return to New York and walk into a retail store of the Roxbury India Rubber Company.

Charles Goodyear showed the store manager his brand new valve but the store manager shook his head. Although impressed with the design, he informed Charles that the company was not in the market for valves at that moment in time. In fact, they would be lucky to stay in business at all in the not so distant future.

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
The Goodyear company was named after Charles Goodyear. Source: CapturedGlimpsesPhoto/Wikimedia Commons

The manager showed Goodyear exactly why. They had racks upon racks of rubber goods that had begun to melt in hot weather. Thousands of dollars of other goods were being returned in large quantities as well. Most were beginning to rot, thereby making them completely useless.

The Company's Directors had even met in the dead of night to bury £20,000 worth of spoilt rejects into a pit. 

The rubber fever

In the early 1830s a 'rubber fever' had gripped the United States and abated almost as soon as it had begun. At first, consumers were enamored with the new wonder material from Brazil. The gum could be seemingly be shaped and molded into almost anything and it was waterproof. 

Factories had begun to spring up everywhere to cash in on the new craze. But the products being churned out turned out to be less than the highest quality. The public became angry with the gums tendency to freeze bone-hard in winter and turn into glue in the summer. 

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Rubber taping. Source: Manojk/Wikimedia Commons

Not a single one of the start-up rubber factories would survive for longer than 5 years. Investors would lose millions of dollars. Everyone seemed to agree that rubber was done for in America.

Charles was disappointed and pocketed his small valve. He also took a look at the rubber products in question. He had toyed with small pieces as a child, but now the strange material took on a new affinity in his mind. 

Charles Goodyear, however, made his mind up to experiment with this gum to see if he could cure these problems.  “There is probably no other inert substance,” he would later say, “which so excites the mind.”

Goodyear promptly packed up his things and returned, once again, home to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, not to a welcome reception.

Go to jail, do not pass go

A former creditor had him arrested and imprisoned. This was not to be his last visit to jail as it turned out. Whilst there Goodyear asked his wife to bring him batches of raw rubber and her rolling pin to experiment. And so, it was there in his jail cell that Goodyear would begin his groundbreaking work on rubber. 

At that point, the gum was relatively inexpensive and he would spend his time heating and working it with his hands. Goodyear reasoned that if the rubber was a natural adhesive couldn't he add some dry powder to make it less sticky? 

He further postulated wither he should add a talc-like substance like magnesia powder. Charles managed to incorporate a certain amount of this powder to produce a beautiful white compound that appeared to, indeed, be less sticky than normal.

Charles thought he was on to a winner. He even managed to secure some investment from childhood friends in New Haven. Goodyear and his family began to make up hundreds of pairs of magnesia-dried rubber overshoes in their kitchen. 

Before they could take them to market, however, the footwear began to sag into a shapeless paste in the summer.

A combination of his neighbors complaining and investors discouragement, Goodyear decided to move his experiments elsewhere. Charles would sell his family's furniture, place them in a quiet boarding place, and move to New York. 

Once there a friend gave him the fourth-floor tenement bedroom in the attic to become his laboratory. In time his brother-in-law would visit and lecture him on his hungry children. He also reminded Goodyear that rubber was dead. 

“I am the man to bring it back,”  Goodyear would retort defiantly.

Charles Goodyear begins his experiments

In his makeshift lab, Goodyear decided to compound the rubber with quicklime and boil it in a mixture of quicklime and water. This technique had startling results and appeared to solve the problem.

His success was quickly noticed and he received international acclaim. A New York trade show even awarded him a medal for his solution to making India Rubber lose its stickiness.

Charles Goodyear was understandably pleased until that was, he noticed a new problem. He observed that a weak drop of acid was enough to neutralize the alkali and cause the rubber to become soft again. Disheartened Goodyear continued his experiments. 

On one occasion he applied some nitric acid to one sample of rubber. This had a strange effect on the rubber making it smooth and as dry as a cloth. This surface cure was considerably better than anyone had ever made before.

Throughout this time, Charles was experimenting heavily with nitric acid and lead oxide. Exposure to these kinds of chemicals was starting to adversely affect his health. He almost suffocated from the vapors produced in his laboratory. Thankfully he survived but the episode resulted in a fever that also almost claimed his life.

Charles's new success attracted the attention of a New York businessman. Goodyear was advanced several thousand dollars to begin production.

Boom and bust

The company started to make clothes, life preservers, rubber shoes and other rubber goods. They also had a large factory with special machinery, built at Staten Island, where he moved his family and again had a home of his own.

Sadly, the financial panic in 1837 wiped out his backer and the embryonic business and left Charles and his backer penniless.

Charles's next move was to travel to Boston. Here he became acquainted with J. Haskins of the Roxbury Rubber Company. They would become very close friends over time. Haskins would lend Goodyear some money and offer help and support for the inventor.

He also became acquainted with one Mr. Chaffer. He was also very kind to Goodyear and ready to listen to his plans and offer assistance. Mr. Chaffer noted that much of Goodyear's issues with rubber could be the solvent he was using. He invented a machine to help mix the rubber through mechanical rather than chemical means. 

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Rubbertapper on a plantation. Source: M.casanova /Wikimedia Commons

The goods that were made in this way were beautiful to look at, and it appeared, as it had before, that all difficulties were overcome.

Goodyear also, around this time, developed a new technique for making rubber shoes. He even received a patent which he sold to the Providence Company on Rhode Island. But, as before, a method to process rubber so it could withstand hot and cold temperatures and acids was still yet to be discovered. 

So any rubber goods produced were constantly growing sticky, decomposing and being returned to the manufacturers.


Vulcanisation is a chemical process whereby the physical properties of natural or synthetic rubber are improved. Vulcanised rubber has much higher tensile strength than untreated rubber and has great resistance to swelling, abrasion and is elastic over a great range of temperatures.

The most basic method of accomplishing vulcanization is to use a mixture of sulfur and heat on rubber. The process was discovered in 1839 by Charles Goodyear after many years of trial and error.

His experiments also noted important functions of certain additional substances in the process. One such material, called an accelerator, can cause vulcanization to proceed much more rapidly at lower temperatures.

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Source: Wheels/Wikimedia Commons

Reactions between rubber and sulfur are not fully understood but within the final product. Sulfur is not dissolved or dispersed in the rubber, rather it appears to become chemically combined. This appears to occur mainly in the form of cross-links, or bridges, between the long-chain molecules of the rubber.

Modern practices of vulcanization occur between temperatures of 130 to 180 degrees Celcius. Sulfur and accelerators are also added. Modern rubber also usually has carbon black or zinc oxide added. These two materials don't just act as extenders, but also improve the quality of the final rubber.

Anti-oxidants are also commonly included to retard deterioration caused by oxygen and ozone.

Certain synthetic rubbers are not vulcanized by sulfur but give satisfactory products upon similar treatment with metal oxides or organic peroxides.

His great discovery

Several years earlier, Charles Goodyear has started a small factory in Springfield, Massachusetts. He moved his primary operations there in 1842. This factory was run mainly by Charles' brothers Nelson and Henry.

At last, Charles found that steam under pressure, applied for four to six hours at around 132 degrees Celsius, gave him the most uniform results. 

Charles' brother-in-law, was a wealthy wool manufacturer who also became involved in Goodyear's business. His brother-in-law became interested after Charles had told him that interwoven rubber threads would produce the fashionable puckered effect that was popular in men's shirts. 

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Source: Bill Ebbesen/Wikimedia Commons

Two “shirred goods” factories were thus rushed into production. This would help rubber become a worldwide success.

Charles Goodyear continued to make the process practical. I  1844, in Springfield, the process was sufficiently perfected enough for him to take out a patent. 

The first vulcanization of rubber is considered one of the major "firsts" that contributes to the City of Springfield's nickname, "The City of Firsts."

In 1844, Goodyear's brother Henry introduced mechanical mixing of the mixture in place of the use of solvents.

Patent lawsuits

Goodyear sent several samples of his heat and sulfur treated gum to British rubber companies in an attempt to drum up overseas business. These samples were sent without any further details. One sample found its way into the possession of a famed English rubber pioneer, Thomas Hancock.

Thomas had been slaving away trying to make rubber waterproof for over 20 years. On close examination, Hancock noticed a yellow sulfur 'bloom' on Goodyear's sample. Using this clue Hancock reverse engineered the process and 'reinvented' vulcanization in 1843

Goodyear attempted to file his British patent soon after only to find Hancock had beat him to it. A lawsuit would soon follow.

If Goodyear was to win the suit he stood to have his own patent accepted and be granted royalties from Hancock's products. There was also another rival in the UK. Stephen Moulton who had also filed his own patent for the process.

Both men had examined Goodyear's samples in 1842

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Vulcanising process at the dental corps laboratory, France. Source: Fæ /Wikimedia Commons

Hancock offered Goodyear a half-share in his own patent in an attempt to drop the suit. Goodyear, smelling blood, declined. In fact, the very term vulcanization had been coined by one of Hancocks associates from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

During the subsequent lawsuits, chemists testified that the process could not have been divined from just studying it. Goodyear lost his lawsuits.

Despite this, Charles Goodyear would remain upbeat later writing:

“In reflecting upon the past, as relates to these branches of industry, the writer is not disposed to repine and say that he has planted, and others have gathered the fruits. The advantages of a career in life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents, as is too often done. Man has just cause for regret when he sows and no one reaps.”

Later life and death

Charles Goodyear died on July the 1st 1860. Sadly he died en route to see his dying daughter. When he finally arrived in New York he was informed of her death and subsequently collapsed himself. 

When he died in 1860, Charles was around $200,000 in debt. Thankfully for his family, accumulated royalties eventually made them comfortable. His son, Charles Junior, inherited Charles' inventive talent and would go on to build a small fortune made from shoemaking machinery. The Goodyear welt, a technique in shoemaking, was also named after his son.

Charles was rushed to Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York where he died at the age of 59. Charles Goodyear was then buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven.

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Charles Goodyear' grave in New Haven. Source: KLOTZ/Wikimedia Commons

Most notably for us today, almost four decades after his death, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was founded. It was named in his honor by its founder,  Frank Seiberling. Apart from his namesake neither Charles himself or his family have any connection with this multi-billion dollar company. 

Goodyear is one of the world's largest rubber businesses in the world. Goodyear’s only direct descendant of modern companies is United States Rubber, which years ago absorbed a small company he once served as director.

Goodyear' legacy

The French Government made Charles a  Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1855.

Charles Goodyear was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in February of 1976. In Woburn, Massachusetts there is even an elementary school named in his honor. 

There is a Charles Goodyear Medal that is awarded by the ACS Rubber Division. This medal honors inventors, innovators, and developers whose contributions resulted in a significant change to the nature of the rubber industry.

It is interesting to think that today there are is a cultivated rubber tree for every two human beings on earth. Millions of tree 'milkers' harvest the crop. The United States, alone, imports almost half of this and synthesizes as much or more from petroleum.

Charles Goodyear: The Father of Vulcanization
Crosslinking of polyisoprene by vulcanization. Source: Hbf878/Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of thousands of Americans livelihoods are based on rubber manufacture and it is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. All of these people have one hardy and tenacious little inventor from almost two centuries ago.

“Life,” Charles Goodyear wrote, “should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.”