Published on May 12, 2014

OTHER VOICES: A role model for the obsessive

By Edward Noga, Crain News Service

AKRON (May 12, 2014) — The guy to whom those in the rubber industry owe their livelihoods made his big discovery 175 years ago this year, and hardly a word has been spoken about it.

That can be viewed as a) sad; b) 175 years isn’t an “anniversary” number; or c) just the way it is.

The “guy” was Charles Goodyear, and his discovery, of course, was vulcanization.

In 1839, perhaps in February, he accidentally tossed a bit of rubber mixed with sulfur onto a hot stove and discovered the fringes of the charred piece was an entirely new product — cured rubber.

Or maybe that’s not the way it happened. A couple of “origin” stories are out there: In one case, Goodyear is having an animated conversation with some naysayers at a general store, and he accidentally flings a piece of rubber/sulfur onto a stove, and voila, vulcanization. In another, the accident occurs during his experiments. The imminent scientist himself didn’t shed more light on the subject but indicated his discovery was the result of lengthy experimentation.

What is known is Mr. Goodyear was obsessed with rubber, and he had a truly difficult life. Some of it was spent in a couple of debtors’ prisons. Despite eventually making a fortune with his patents, he lost it all, dying $200,000 in debt.

Charles Goodyear was the poster child for obsession. He was determined to find a way to cure rubber, which had lost favor in society because it eventually would succumb to temperature.

He never gave up his quest, much to the detriment of his family. He and his wife had 12 children, but six died in their youth, one while he was in debtor’s prison.

And he had to fight for his patents. He won, at great expense, patent fights in the U.S., but he filed his patent in England eight weeks after Thomas Hancock did and lost out. The fact he spent so much in court—including a $15,000 fee for Daniel Webster to defend his patent in the U.S. Supreme Court—helped to destroy his financial life.

That was long ago and, I’m afraid, long forgotten. The tire maker that adopted Goodyear’s name at least keeps it alive. I note Goodyear’s website has an article about Charles Goodyear, which is nice. It’s from a story that ran in Readers’ Digest — in 1958.

The ACS Rubber Division’s top technical award is in the great man’s name — the Charles Goodyear Medal. He’s also in the Inventor’s Hall of Fame.

I’ve always felt obsessive behavior can be the key to many inventions, discoveries and creations. Insert “passion” for obsession if that sounds better to you.

People who pursue something with single-minded devotion aren’t taking the easy course. But that focus—as aberrant as it might be compared to “normal” folks—is often how outstanding things get done.

So happy 175th anniversary Charles Goodyear, a true role model for rubber folk who have some crazy idea they can’t shake.

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Ed Noga is a contributing editor to and former editor of Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business. He can reached at elnmails@yahoo.com.

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