Charles Goodyear: Resilient As Vulcanized Rubber

Charles Goodyear: Resilient As Vulcanized Rubber

Table of Contents

“Life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. A man has cause for regret only when he sows, and no one reaps.”

Writing this piece about Charles Goodyear was quite a learning experience for me, and I want to share it with you.

It’s winter. Dry roads have become something to look forward to. To say that the highway is sleek is an understatement. So we change our tires to ones with stronger grips. 

It could be Michelin or Goodyear. How did a broke man leave behind a legacy that transcended his life?

Early Beginnings

On December 29, 1800, Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut. 

His parents were Amasa and Cynthia Bateman Goodyear. He was the eldest son among all six children born into a prestigious family.

His father is said to have been the descendant of Stephen Goodyear, a British man. He was one of the founding members of the New Haven Colony in 1638. His father was a hardware manufacturer, and Charles worked in his shop.

Charles also educated himself at home as a child, becoming a chemist and engineer later in life. By 1816, he became an apprentice at a hardware merchant firm in Philadelphia.

He got married in August 1824 to Ella Clarissa Beecher and started a family. Returning home, Charles went into partnership with his father to fund a business idea.

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First Endeavor

Like I said earlier, Charles entered into a partnership with his father in Naugatuck. This father and son team entered into the manufacture of metal and ivory buttons and agricultural implements. 

A few years later, Charles and his family relocated to Philadelphia to open his first hardware shop. He was at a disadvantage because of the predominant distrust of domestically produced farming tools.

People preferred to import them from Britain. As such, Charles was quickly running out of business.

Beginning of the End

In 1829, Charles was struck by dyspepsia. This is an ailment where digestion is impaired, thus causing discomfort in the abdomen. 

And this was just the beginning of his woes. Due to many failed ventures, his company became bankrupt. Following this disappointment, Charles turned his attention to rubber.

He was going to join the “rubber fever.”

A Brief History of Rubber

Christopher Columbus was one of the few people to bring the sticky substance from rubber trees to the New World.

Rubber was used by a British scientist named Joseph Priestley as an eraser. It is as a result of this rubber substituted eraser in English vocabulary.

It was not until the 1800s that practical uses of rubber began to be explored. This relatively new product experienced a boom! Everyone was doing something with rubber. During this time, the term “rubber fever” was coined.

Back to Charles

This rubber situation in America was what Charles was born into, and it provides a backdrop for his subsequent endeavors. He became obsessed with gum elastic and read everything about it, from peers’ findings to newspapers.

But how was he to make a substance whose texture was subject to temperature?

Oh, Rubber!

Being a businessman, Charles made an excellent foray into the rubber market. Boston-based Roxbury India Rubber Company tested gum elastic. They believed that they had found how to manufacture goods with it.

Some of their early products snagged Charles’ attention. Thus, when he visited New York and was introduced to life preservers, he was inspired to tackle a challenge! 

The tube used for inflation was not practical or well-made. Returning home to Philadelphia, he began making tubes with his valve design. 

Having experienced positive results, he walked into a retail store of the Roxbury India Rubber Company in New York. Unfortunately, the tube he showed the store manager was rejected. 

This was not because the design was terrible. On the contrary, it was pretty impressive. However, the company was not in the market for valves. 

He further explained that business was floundering, and only luck would keep them functioning soon enough.

Fever Cured!

By the 1830s, the rubber fever in the United States had abated. As quickly as the fascination with the wonder material began was how it died down.

Companies that cropped up everywhere using rubber in production were closed down. The public was in an uproar over the gum’s tendency to freeze in winter and turn to glue in summer—a fair-weather product.

The way it could be manipulated into different shapes and sizes, which were waterproof, was a great plus except in winter or summer. None of these companies lasted longer than five years. Investors were losing millions here and there.

Charles was understandably disappointed by the market downturn. Instead, he vowed to surmount the challenge posed by the nature of rubber.

He is quoted to say later: “There is probably no other inert substance which so excites the mind.”

Charles returned home to Philadelphia to an unwelcome reception but with his mind made up.

Go to Jail, Do Not Pass Go

Waiting for him was a former creditor who took him straight on his first journey to jail. Not a man to be daunted by something so trivial as incarceration, he asked his wife to bring him raw rubber and her rolling pin.

And so he continued his experiments. He reckoned that rubber was a natural adhesive, but what could be added to make it less sticky.

Dry powder, perhaps? And maybe something talc-like, such as magnesia powder. Mixing these, Charles produced a substance that was decidedly less sticky.

Encouraged by this progress, he secured investments from childhood friends back in New Haven. He and his family began to produce hundreds of rubber shoes in their kitchen.

However, before their market debut, the shoes started to melt and sag in the summer. Charles decided to pick up the shop and move away. 

Neighbours’ complaints about bad smells and his investors’ disgruntlement spurred this decision. So, he sold some of his property, placed others in a boarding place, and moved his family to New York.

Goodyear Residence in New York

One of his friends gave him a tenement on the fourth floor of his building, which became Charles’ laboratory. At this time, his brother-in-law visited him and asked him to give up the idea of making “dead” rubber a rewarding venture.

He even warned him about his hungry children surviving on the fish they caught themselves. Charles, however, retorted, saying, “I’m going to bring it back.”

Even More Experiments

In his new lab, he continued with his experiments. He added quicklime to rubber and boiled it in water. Although this method showed promise and even received international acclaim, he noticed a flaw in the product.

A tiny drop of acid could neutralise the alkali, causing the rubber to soften once more. He, as such, resumed experimenting.

Fleeting Success

A rubber mixture and nitric acid made the rubber into something no one had seen before. It was smooth and dry as cloth. This new output brought him to a New York businessman who decided to back his endeavor.

However, all these experiments with acidic substances adversely affected his health. Almost suffocating in his lab once, he had a fever that all but claimed his life.

His new business was booming, though. Clothes, rubber shoes, life preservers, and more were being produced. He had a big factory, with special machinery, built on Staten Island. The financial meltdown of 1837 unfortunately rendered Charles and his backer penniless.

Disappointed but determined, he moved to Boston, where he met J. Haskins of the Roxbury Rubber Company.

As their friendship bloomed, Haskins supported Charles in his venture. He also met Mr. Chaffer in Boston, who was very nice to him. Chaffer, who listened to his woes, surmised that the issue Charles was facing lay in the solvent he was using. 

He, as such, helped invent the machine that helped mix the rubber mechanically rather than chemically. The product of this process, like before, looked like a complete success. 

Charles had perfected a new way of making rubber shoes and received a patent, which he sold to the Providence Company, situated on Rhode Island.

But this product soon began to show problems, as with the others, the rubber was melting, decomposing, and had to be returned to him.

The Art of Vulcanization

Simply put, vulcanization is improving the physical properties of natural rubber. This process increases the tensile strength of rubber.

Charles Goodyear discovered it in 1839 when he mistakenly dropped the rubber inside a fire and it was this vulcanization that was his most tremendous success. He moved his operations in 1842 to a small factory that he had earlier started.

He and his younger brothers, Nelson and Henry, ran this factory. Charles found that applying heat at 132 degrees Celsius for six hours gave the best results.

Backed by his brothers and financially by his brother-in-law, two factories were rapidly made functional. Two years later, Charles had perfected the production process so well that he was confident of getting a patent. 

Charles’ efforts contributed to the nickname of Springfield, where his companies were. “The City of Firsts” given that the first vulcanization of rubber is a significant first.

Goodyear Rubber Shoe Company

And Then, Death

Following the success of his product, Charles was caught in different patent lawsuits, particularly from a rubber pioneer, Thomas Hancock, and a Stephen Moulton, both located in Britain.

One of Hancock’s students coined vulcanization from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. When Charles tried to file for a British patent, all these came to light, but Hancock beat him to it.

Despite losing the lawsuit, the court confirmed that Charles Goodyear did come across the solution for rubber by himself while the other two followed in his process to achieve theirs. But he was late to get the patent.

After all his travels, Charles Goodyear returned home when he heard his daughter dying. 

On getting there, he learned that she was dead. The shock of this led him to collapse and subsequently die. On July 1, 1860, at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York, he died aged 59.

At the moment of his death, he was $200,000 in debt, but the royalties his family accumulated from his patent eventually made them comfortable.

Legacy and a New Era

In 1855, before his death, the French made him a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur. In total, he received 60 patents for his vulcanization process, which he applied to various products, such as condoms, intrauterine devices, syringes, and diaphragms.

In 1898, building on his Charles’ patent, Frank Seiberling borrowed $3000 dollars for the down payment on an abandoned factory on the banks of the Little Cuyahoga River in Akron, Ohio.

Thus, Frank and his brother, also named Charles, founded the Goodyear Company, so named after Charles Goodyear. Seiberling was born on October 6, 1859.

Frank  Seiberling

The Goodyear Company

Although the brain behind this new company, Seiberling did not become the head of it. Instead, David Hill, who put in $30,000 into the venture, was the President. But it was Seiberling who chose both the company name and winged foot logo.

On November 21, 1898 - bicycle tires, horseshoe pads, carriage tires began to be produced by 13 employees of the Goodyear Company and a few weeks later on December 1, the company sold its first rubber tube for pharmaceutical bottles at $25.80.

And a few weeks later, on December 1, the company sold its first rubber tube for pharmaceutical bottles at $25.80. After opening the shop a month ago, the company raked in $8,246 in sales.

The payroll for employees was $217.86 in accordance with the prevailing wage rates in that period. In 1899, Seiberling’s brother-in-law became the second president that automobile tires were introduced into the Goodyer products line-up.

Another year later, the company recorded $1,035,921 profit from sales. The winged foot of the god Hermes in the name was also added. And by 1901, the winged foot trademark was used in an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post.

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In 1903, Goodyear president Paul Litchfield was granted the patent to produce the world’s first tubeless tires. In 1904, the company also received the patent for a  tire-building machine, and the first detachable rim was first produced.

By 1905, the Goodyear Company, under Seiberling, was the global leader in tire manufacturing, with 300 workers, 28 of whom were in the sales department. 

The company, in 1906, under Seiberling, who was now President, produced the first-ever quick detachable straight line tire.

As an industry leader, Goodyear sold 1200 tires to Henry Ford for the Model T automobile in 1907. The cord tire for electric vehicles was also introduced this year.

Following the evolution trend, six years later, the company had expanded its products from tires to other things. Conveyor belts, balloons, and more were being produced.

During the First World War, the company continued its expansion; all cars in the Indianapolis 500 raced on Goodyear tires and the company invented the “kite” observation balloon.

Furthermore, sales branches opened in South Africa, Argentina, and Australia. In 1916, it was officially the world’s largest tire manufacturer with offices in different countries.

Tire room, 1916

1917 saw the introduction of The Blimp, a fleet of airships used mainly for advertisement purposes. It was used both by the company and the US Navy.



By 1919, the company manufactured the first bulletproof gas tank for airplanes and had 30,000 employees.


Goodyear Company in Ohio, 1937

Frank Seiberling, the brain behind the Goodyear Company, died on August 11, 1955.

Even More Legacies

In 1976, Carles Goodyear was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In Woburn, Massachusetts, there is a school named after him.

Today, the Charles Goodyear Medal awarded by the ACS Rubber Division honors inventors, innovators, and developers directly impacting the rubber industry.



Also, today, hundreds of thousands of American lives are based on manufacturing rubber, and it is a multi-billion dollar industry.

And Seiberling’s Goodyear company is worth $6.59bn and is present in 58 countries globally.


Goodyear HQ in Ohio, 2021

Key Takeaway

Charles Goodyear embodied the meaning of determination. Despite all the failures he experienced, he always managed to put the next foot in front of the other.

His strength was such a motivation to me while reading about him. Another aspect of his life that was also impressive was his social network. His friends and family were his support both physically and financially.

It is impossible to stand as an island and build a legacy that transcends generations. Charles’ legacy lends credence to his quote at the beginning of this peace.

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