Ancient Mesoamericans Invented Rubber 3,000 Years Before Goodyear
Rubber played a big part in the traditional Mesoamerican ballgame, which was played by many civilizations in Mesoamerica. (Photo by Alex Peña/LatinContent via Getty Images)
Do a quick Google search for who invented rubber, and you will see the name Charles Goodyear pop up quite a bit. The American chemist and namesake of the Goodyear Tire Company gets most of the credit for the creation of rubber and all the rubber products in our lives, but rubber predates Goodyear by three centuries. The ancient Mesoamericans were using rubber long before Goodyear and his accidental discovery of the vulcanization process in 1839. Let's look more closely at rubber in the centuries before Charles Goodyear.
The rubber tree of Central American exudes an elastic latex. (caruba.co.uk)
The Rubber Tree
Castilla elastica, or the rubber tree, is a large tree indigenous to Central America that produces a strangely stretchy substance called latex. Contrary to popular belief, the latex is not the sap of the rubber tree; it's actually found in the layers of bark. This latex can be easily extracted to serve a variety of purposes.
Tapping a rubber tree. (latexworkshops.com)
A Clue In The Name
Anthropologists are uncertain which ancient culture discovered the elastic properties of rubber, but there may be clues in the nomenclature. The ancient Aztecs called the rubber tree the olicuahuitl and the rubber produced from it ulli or olli, and the same root word is found in the name of the Mesoamerican ballgame, ulama. We also see this same root word in the Aztec name for the people who predated them, the Olmecs. The Aztecs used the term olmeca, or "rubber people," to refer to this culture.
The ancient people of Mesoamerica knew how to make rubber. (psic.ws)
An Ancient Recipe For Rubber
The people living in Mesoamerica more than 3,000 years ago figured out that mixing the latex from the rubber tree with the juice of the Ipomoea alba plant, a type of morning glory, causes the latex to firm up. The rubber could then be cut into long strips, which were wound around a solid center to make a rubber ball, important for the Mesoamerican ballgame. Conveniently, this vining plant often grows up the trunk of the rubber tree.
Rubber balls were used for the popular ballgame. (history.com)
Producing rubber was vital to making the balls the ancient people of Mesoamerica needed for their ballgame, versions of which archaeologists believe have been played since around 1400 BC. The rules are unclear, but it appears that the game included elements that are similar to modern basketball, soccer, and handball. The massive stone ball courts where the game was played have stone hoops (mounted vertically, not horizontally like today's basketball hoops), so it's safe to assume that putting the ball through these hoops was at least one of the objects of the game. It does appear, however, that the ballgame was also tied to religious rituals and ceremonies.
Numerous ancient rubber balls have been unearthed. (theculturetrip.com)
Discovering Ancient Rubber Artifacts
Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest known rubber balls at a sacrificial bog at a site called El Manati. Five rubber balls from this location have been dated to about 1700 BCE. The presence of younger rubber balls, as well as other artifacts at the site, indicate that the bog was used for hundreds of years.
Rubber was used for more than just making balls. (blog.education.nationalgeographic.org)
Rubber: Not Just For Balls
Balls weren't the only use for rubber in ancient Mesoamerica. Rubber strips were also used to fashion sandals, tie or hang things, and sculpt figurines in the shape of humans. Rubber has spiritual significance, too. During some religious celebrations, rubber was burned.
Joseph Priestley gave the substance the name "rubber." (rsc.org)
Rubber In Europe
Explorers from Europe encountered rubber when they traveled to Central America, viewing the previously unknown material with awe. Several sheets of rubber were shipped to France in 1736, and soon, rubbermania swept the continent. Chemists and scientists of the time couldn't wait to get their hands on it, including English scientist Joseph Priestly, who found that he could use the rubber to erase pencil marks on paper. He dubbed the material "rubber" for its ability to rub out the mistakes.
Charles Goodyear's name is synonymous with rubber. (pinterest.com)
Enter Charles Goodyear
Born in Connecticut in 1800, Charles Goodyear started his career as a partner in his father's hardware business. When the company went bankrupt, Goodyear found employment at a rubber factory in Massachusetts owned by Nathaniel M. Hayward, who discovered that rubber treated with sulfur was just as elastic but not as sticky. Goodyear, a chemist, experimented with methods of treating rubber to keep it stable in extreme temperatures.
Goodyear's discovery of the vulcanization process was accidental. (massmoments.org)
A Surprising Accident
One day in 1839, Goodyear had a happy accident. He dropped some of the rubber-sulfur mixture onto a hot stove, and when he cleaned up the mess, he realized that the rubber was not ruined by the high heat. In fact, it was improved. He called his discovery "vulcanization" and applied for a patent.
Tires are just one of the products made using Goodyear's vulcanization process. (tyreplex.com)
A Patent Battle
Goodyear's patent application was not immediately approved. In fact, he battled patent offices across North America and Europe for years. Even after he was awarded a U.S. patent in 1844, it was infringed upon numerous times, costing him a lot of money in legal fees. He set up a factory in France to produce vulcanized rubber, but the company failed, and he wound up in debtor's prison. Despite his achievements, he died penniless in 1860.
In his time, Goodyear was seen as a failed businessman, but today, you can't walk through the automotive section without being assaulted by his name. Although he undoubtedly did not intend to minimize the inventions of the ancient Mesoamericans, his name has been forever linked to rubber.