The Evolution of Rubber

At Triton, rubber is our game. A non-stop game of building upon the fascinating history of rubber products with the goal of engineering it in ways the world has never seen. Our team has 45+ years of experience formulating rubber products, both liquid and solid forms. With that knowledge, we’re disrupting the construction materials industry with liquid-applied rubber technologies. How’d we get here and why?

As early as the 1600’s BC, indigenous people of South America had discovered a white, honey-like substance “crying” from their trees. This substance was used to make bouncy balls for games and to glue wood handles onto tools or weapons. Once they discovered its waterproofing properties, it was even used to waterproof clothing. The name of the first major civilization in Guatemala and Mexico even was called the “Olmec”, meaning “rubber people” in ancient Aztec language.

There’s a rumor that Christopher Columbus witnessed rubber in Haiti in the 1490’s when watching natives play with a funny rubber ball. Or stories of Europeans initially thinking rubber was “witchcraft” due to its extraordinary properties. It was flexible, stretchy, adhesive, and waterproof.

When rubber was introduced to English society in 1770 by Joseph Priestly, it gained its current name due to its ability to “rub” out pencil markings. In the 1830’s, a man named Charles Goodyear became obsessed with the material after purchasing a rubber life-preserver. His mind began to dream of all the possibilities. He won a contract with the U.S. Government to manufacture rubber mail bags, but he had a problem. The material became sticky when hot and stiff when cold, resulting in the bags deteriorating rapidly.

In 1839, Mr. Goodyear claims to have accidentally dropped rubber and sulfur on a hot stove, causing it to char like leather, but remain elastic and pliable. To his surprise, it didn’t melt, but actually hardened with more heat. This was the first U.S. discovery of “vulcanization”, which is the process to cure the entire mass of rubber. He named it after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, and patented the process in 1844. However, this story is heavily disputed because, at the same time, a British scientist named Thomas Hancock claimed to have discovered vulcanization first in England. Historians say he shared his discovery with Goodyear.

Rubber now had industrial applications and demand skyrocketed worldwide. Because farmers in Brazil were abused and treating poorly at the hands of greedy men, they started destroying trees. Eventually, rubber tree seeds were transported to Southeast Asia, where most of our natural rubber comes from today. In 1889, John Dunlop of England produced the first successful bicycle tire and later the first automobile tire.

In the early 1900’s during the first World Wars, chemists worked tirelessly to invent synthetic rubber, to reduce dependency on natural rubber, and in an effort to adjust its physical properties. The Russians were the first to develop a synthetic rubber, called polybutadiene, and the Germans came later with Buna-S (Styrene Butadiene Copolymer). In the U.S., a government-led research program led to the invention of SBR (Styrene Butadiene Rubber).

Then things really started to get exciting, as companies developed new rubber technologies at light-speed. In 1930, DuPont invented Duprene (now called Neoprene). In 1934, Germans invented the first oil-resistant rubber called Buna-N (Perbunan). Then butyl rubber in the 1940’s, Hypalon, Viton, and Polyurethane in the 50’s, and EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Terpolymer Rubber) in the 60’s. Then came thermoplastic elastomers, which behave like rubber but soften like plastic when heated (think PVC, TPO). As technologies evolved, properties were improved. Better resistance to UV, weathering, fire, chemicals, punctures, and more. Think about how rubber affects our daily lives, from our vehicles to our shoes to our roofs.

If you’re in the construction industry, you can see the correlations between these inventions and the evolution of building materials. Rubber is a natural barrier against water and, with further inventions, has become a heavily relied upon barrier against all elements, including chemicals. This is why Triton is building upon the foundation laid by others and inventing new ways of formulating, using, and applying rubber to protect structures all over the world.

Thousands of years ago, rubber fascinated and amazed people. That awe and wonder continues still today. The incredible potential of rubber has not yet been fully realized. What an exciting future.