First Person: Calvin Fuller

Calvin Fuller in 1986. CHF Collections, photograph by Jim Bohning.

While CHF's oral history interviewees are often distinguished scientists with lengthy careers, it's rare that one can say he or she made it to Hollywood. But Calvin Fuller of Bell Labs did—due in part to his role in World War II synthetic rubber research.

Fuller had been involved in early polymer chemistry during the 1930s, before polymer applications had been fully explored. His research record and Bell Labs' notoriety in this new field made Fuller a natural choice to head the polymer research division of the U.S. Synthetic Rubber Project. The project was created during World War II, a time when those with the technical know-how to create, modify, and manufacture rubber and rubber-like polymers were of the utmost importance to the U.S. government.

The synthetic rubber project was a subject of interest for the American public; letters poured in suggesting everything from a supposed process to make rubber from coffee to how to extend the rubber stockpile. Most were referred to other departments. But in one case Fuller and his colleagues got involved. He recalled in his oral history:

…[Nathan] Blumberg, president of Universal Pictures….as a public-spirited citizen, believed they had a solution for the rubber shortage…. The process, invented by a man named Jean, was very simple in principle: the government gives Jean a pound of natural rubber from the shrinking stockpile. He puts the rubber through his process now operating on the Syracuse set and it is made into two pounds of natural rubber. Putting the two pounds through the process will give four pounds, continuing in geometric progression. This would result in enormous production if the raw materials available from petroleum could be produced in sufficient quantity…. The people promoting this scheme were so important [the government] sent a pessimist (me) and an optimist to investigate.

Fuller and his optimistic colleague, Ernst Hauser, investigated while in Hollywood. They found that the rubber appreciation was not promising—Fuller called it “rubber fabrication art.” But while Fuller submitted his report to Congress and moved on, Hauser had a bigger Hollywood experience. Fuller recounted:

[Hauser] stayed longer than I looking things over. I heard that he got Universal to film the entire process and give him a copy of the film, but I never knew whether this actually took place…. My recollection is that Hauser did have such a film made and that he was given a copy.

Rubber was big business, and Fuller knew the stakes: “There would be large profits for someone if the process had been endorsed…but the cost to Universal must have been nearly a million.”

Rubber indeed had one of the biggest starring roles in World War II science. It's unsurprising that Hollywood might see it as a worthwhile investment.

Sarah Hunter-Lascoskie is a program associate in oral history at CHF. First Person, which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month. CHF’s online exhibit Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem, launched in 2011.

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Posted In: History | Technology

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