Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Rubber

Washington, D.C., circa 1921. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size here.

Hayden’s first position was on the production line processing crude rubber for inner tubes. Eventually he moved up the ranks into product research and development. His position in Fisk was quite fortuitous: Fisk was one of the five largest rubber-production companies—along with the “big four”—until U.S. Rubber bought it in 1939. From what we can learn from Hayden’s oral history, there was not much research and development done on synthetic rubber in the interwar period, at least not at Fisk: Hayden and his two coworkers “were the whole business. [They] had control of quality and control of service. [They] did all of the compounding. Through that the three of [them] all got a great deal of general experience of the art of rubber compounding.... It was art, because an awful lot of it was trial and error all the way through” (15). Clearly, early rubber research required an extensive amount of effort from what was at the time a small group of chemists: it was no easy task to create a usable, efficient, and effective rubber compound.

Stearic Acid Structure

Hayden described what he knew of the theoretical understanding of polymers and rubber circa 1919, although he admitted that the term polymer probably was not being used:

Well, about all that we knew was that you had to have sulfur. You could even out a lot of quality by using a little stearic acid and zinc oxide. We had Lothar Weber, who was supposed to be an expert in the chemistry of rubber. I say “chemistry,” but put “chemistry” in quotes, because there wasn’t much. I guess he was supposed to be the leading man in the world. He’d come down from Cambridge and spend Friday afternoons with the three of us going over our quality problems. [...] Then carbon black came into use. I remember very much when the first carbon black was used. We heard about it, and with trepidation we substituted seventeen parts by volume of carbon black in our automobile tire treads. Previously the Fisk tire was really very famous. It was a zinc oxide tire tread covered with iron oxide. It took just a little bit of iron oxide to give it a red color. (15-16)

Prewar polymer and rubber research was clearly becoming more complicated—more compounds, new processes, more chemistry—and the continued research would need more collaborators and further innovation.

National Bureau of Standards Title Page

"Synthetic Rubbers: A Review of Their Compositions, Properties, and Uses," a circular of the National Bureau of Standards, 1940.

At the same time that scientists in the United States were trying to make their way into the world of synthetic-rubber chemistry, Standard Oil of New Jersey’s interest was piqued by research on the creation of oil and gasoline from coal by the German chemical company Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (known as BASF today). BASF’s interest in Standard’s oil refineries and Standard Oil’s interest in catalysts used as part of the Bergius process to convert even the lowest-quality oils and tars into high-quality gasoline led to a partnership. Impressed by the accomplishments of BASF, Standard Oil decided that it wanted to have access to this German science as well. Willard Asbury noted the importance of these catalysts: “We learned a lot about catalysts. Their details about catalysts were the most important new things we learned in the oil business. It saved us a lot of time” (34). Since BASF was unable to make its catalysts work on an industrial scale, Standard Oil offered financial help to develop and perfect the process. Although interested, BASF could not agree because it and six other companies had recently become part of the German industrial conglomerate I.G. Farben, and the entire group had to decide on any and all such business as a single entity.

Polymers, A Brief History

What are polymers, when did they become important, and how is this related to rubber? Read More >

Visiting Prewar Germany

In the 1930s numerous scientists travelled to Germany, still the leader in chemical industry. Our oral history interviewees describe their experiences. Read More >

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