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Natural rubber is a pliable, stretchy material made from the
milky juice of various tropical plants. Synthetic rubber
synthesized from petroleum and other minerals, was developed as a
substitute for natural rubber. The material is called rubber
because it appeared that one of the most practical uses of the gum
would be to rub out, or erase, pencil marks.
Rubber, whether natural or synthetic, is an essential raw
material. No other material is as good for holding air, keeping out
moisture, resisting electricity, and stretching. Much synthetic
rubber is used today, owing to the greater variety of uses to which
it can be applied and the different ways it can be altered for use.
Well over half of all the rubber produced is used for tires and
tubes for automobiles, trucks, and other vehicles; it is also used
in making rainwear, shoes, rubber gloves, and syringes for medical
use, large storage containers, floor coverings, balls for sports,
insulating materials, and many other products.
Christopher Columbus, while on one of his voyages to the New
World in the 1490s, observed natives in Haiti playing with a ball
that bounced. It was made from a sticky substance drained from a
certain tree through a cut in the bark. Later explorers observed
American Indians using the substance to make footwear by applying
the substance to earthen molds and allowing it to dry.
For a long period of time, people tried to use the milky
substance to waterproof their clothing. It worked in the rain but
melted in the sun. This problem plagued the would-be users of this
promising material for centuries.
In 1839, however, Charles Goodyear, an American who had become
obsessed with finding a way to make rubber useful in all seasons,
discovered the process known as vulcanization. He dropped a glob of
rubber mixed with sulfur on a hot stove. When the mixture cooled,
it remained pliable in the cold and did not become sticky when
exposed to heat.
Goodyear's discovery spawned the rubber industry because it made
rubber practical for countless uses. Rubber manufacturing plants
were established in New England and later in other parts of the
Rubber manufacturing moved to the Midwest in the 1870s. This was
the hub of the carriage-making industry to which the rubber
industry supplied solid, and eventually pneumatic (air-filled),
tires. Many of the carriage makers went into automobile
manufacturing in the early part of the 20th century, establishing
the Midwest as the country's most important rubber manufacturing
area, with Akron, Ohio, as its capital.
As the industry grew, manufacturing tended to become centralized
in large plants at one location. During the 1930s, however, the
trend toward decentralization began. Los Angeles was established as
a center on the West Coast, and later, many factories were opened
in Southern and other Midwestern states.
Meanwhile, export trade expanded. But tariff barriers and import
quotas imposed by foreign countries, as well as monetary exchange
problems, led to the development of American-owned rubber factories
and plantations in foreign countries.
The larger companies in the rubber industry are multinational
organizations that manufacture and sell their products around the
world. Today's rubber industry is 60 percent tire manufacture and
40 percent rubber components supplied to the aerospace, appliance,
medical, transportation, construction, electrical, and electronic