A Brief History of Rubber; or, How GR-S was Made

Josh Clark

Back in 1839, a man named Charles Goodyear figured out how to vastly improve rubber beyond its natural state with a process called vulcanization. Once vulcanized, rubber -- which is naturally gooey at warmer temperatures and rigid at cool temps -- becomes capable of withstanding punishing heat and pressure. Suddenly the uses of rubber opened up considerably -- tires, hoses, shoe soles, fan belts -- and since this coincided with the Industrial Revolution, mass production of these products meant vast supplies of raw rubber were needed.

Fortunately, the Western world had known since the early 16th century where there were vast stores of rubber, in the Amazon. In just a couple decades, Brazil, what was once an impoverished and remote area, became extremely wealthy and the center of the rubber boom, putting out 42,000 tons of raw rubber a year. This control over the international rubber trade would be unparalleled: Brazil was the indigenous cradle of the rubber tree and the tree's range had expanded only as far as Central America.

But that would change soon. In 1876, some British businessmen managed to smuggle rubber tree seeds from the Amazon to the British Botanical Gardens where they managed to create more durable hybrids that just happened to thrive in the British colonies in Southeast Asia. By 1910, the center of the global rubber market shifted from the Amazon to Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

Around the time Southeast Asia came to dominate rubber, the world came to need it even more, with the introduction of the mass-produced automobile, each of which needed four good rubber tires. By the time the World War II rolled around, the U.S. had come to depend on these rubber exports dearly -- consuming about half of the world's exports. In manufacturing, a fighter plane required half a ton of rubber, while a battleship used up 75 tons. In total for personnel, the Pentagon needed 32 pounds of rubber for every troop on the ground. This is why it was an enormously big deal when the Japanese successfully invaded the Pacific theater, which held the very nations whose rubber plantations supplied the U.S. with that rubber it needed.

Fortunately, we had a de facto socialist in the White House in FDR, and he decreed a public/private partnership be arranged between the federales and the four big rubber companies to share the patent on a mass-produced synthetic rubber. Ironically, the research focused on a type of styrene-butadiene synthetic rubber developed by German researchers years earlier. What resulted was government rubber-styrene (GR-S), an all-purpose synthetic rubber that could be used to make everything from shoe soles, to hoses, to tires.

What was perhaps most remarkable is that this group of researchers, businessmen and bureaucrats managed to achieve this goal in 18 months. In 1942, after production really came online, about 2,200 tons of GR-S were produced in the big four rubber plants. By 1945, output was at 920,000 tons. Take that, fascists.