December 29 is the birthday of the man who discovered the process to vulcanize rubber.
Rubber is a natural polymer collected from trees in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The latex sap is collected and refined for commercial use. Rubber was great for applications such as waterproofing and insulation, but it has a few major drawbacks. When the temperature gets hot, it turns into a gooey mess. When it gets cold, rubber turns brittle and cracks easily.
Charles Goodyear was an American inventor who spent several years trying to find a method to address these shortfalls. Nearly all of his attempts would either rot to a crumbly mess or turn sticky in the heat. In 1839, he ultimately found the answer by accident. He spilled a mixture of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove. The stove cured the rubber mixture into a solid mass. This rubber could withstand higher temperatures without melting and cold temperatures without cracking.
After he patented his process, he started a small company to find uses for his rubber. Unfortunately, he spent most of his efforts towards defending his patents and in lawsuits and ultimately his business failed.
The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company had nothing to do with Charles Goodyear and was formed 38 years after his death in 1860.
Notable Science History Events for December 29
2004 – Julius Axelrod died.
Axelrod was an American biochemist who shares the 1970 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Ulf von Euler and Bernard Katz for their discoveries involving neural transmitters. Axelrod investigated the roles of catecholamines, specifically epinephrine and norepinephrine and made discoveries about the pineal gland and how it works during the sleep-wake cycle.
1989 – Hermann Oberth died.
Oberth was an Austrian-Hungarian physicist who was one of the pioneers of rocketry. He designed and built liquid fuel rockets starting in 1929. One of his students at that launch was Werner von Braun who would build rockets for Germany and the United States. He determined the mathematics for a rocket to leave Earth’s gravitational well and enter orbit.
1911 – Klaus Fuchs was born.
Fuchs was a German physicist who became known as the ‘Atom Bomb Spy’ when he was convicted of espionage for passing vital information about atomic weapons to the Soviet Union. He was part of the Manhattan project to built the atomic bomb and passed notes along to a Soviet contact and had a significant effect on the Soviet atomic weapons project after the war. He was convicted of espionage and served 9 years of a 14-year sentence. After his release, he moved to East Germany and served as Deputy Director of the Institute for Nuclear Research in Dresden.
1813 – Alexander Parkes was born.
Parkes was a British chemist who developed the first man-made thermoplastic. His plastic, named Parkesine was based on nitrocellulose and sometimes called synthetic ivory. He also developed an economical process to remove silver from lead ores known as the Parkes process.
Read more about Parkes on June 29 in Science History.