Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Wartime Crisis

June 1942: A boy turns in rubber for salvage. Delaware Public Archives.

Wartime roadblocks to collaboration

The preliminary research required to solve the rubber problem was in place. But the ability of these competitive industrial and academic scientists to come together was a looming question during the early stages of World War II. How would they collaborate, and how would knowledge be disseminated?

Buna-N Structure

Before World War II the interaction between industrial and academic scientists in rubber research was not an open process. Some prominent chemists, including University of Illinois’s Carl Marvel, consulted for companies like DuPont, but by and large, polymer chemists in the academy did not interact and collaborate with “big industry.” Similarly, employed chemists at each of the “big four” rubber companies were competitors, not collaborators. Goodyear had its own full-time program committed to synthetic-rubber research by 1933, and it developed a synthetic rubber for tires several years later. But for the most part Southeast Asia was still the main source of natural rubber for the United States. It was unclear whether scientists in industry and in academe would collaborate, and collaboration between industry competitors seemed even more improbable; but while such collaborations presented potential difficulties, those difficulties were overcome through negotiation. The immediate need for rubber; the lack of a standardized, commercial process for a synthetic rubber; and the national interest in the production of synthetic rubber during wartime all compelled scientists in academia and in the rubber companies to work collaboratively. 

Rubber Army Treads

December 1941: Treads for Army halftracks are cured under heat and pressure in molds which are first sprayed with a lubricant at the Goodrich tire plant, Akron, Ohio. 4x5 nitrate negative by Alfred Palmer for the Office of War Information. View full size.

The mounting concern about developing a collaborative national synthetic-rubber program did not interest everyone equally: Standard Oil did not want to participate fully and share patented information that could prove vital to the American war effort. Because of previous agreements between Standard Oil and I.G. Farben, Standard Oil owned the patent to the German Buna rubber process. In 1939, however, Standard Oil bought I.G. Farben’s interest in JASCO, thus obtaining fully the patent rights to Buna-S synthetic rubber. But having the patent rights for producing the product was not the same as having the know-how, the tacit knowledge, actually to create the process in the United States. I.G. Farben was unwilling to transfer the know-how necessary to create Buna-S. Thus, how much information Standard Oil had regarding Buna-S, as well as whether that information would be made available to other American companies, was unknown in the years just before World War II. Additionally, use of that information would come at a price: the “big four” companies were still expected to pay Standard Oil for use of its patented process—something several of those companies could not afford—and Standard Oil also wanted access to the knowledge and patents in synthetic-rubber production that any of the “big four” made during that license period. Standard Oil employees like Green and Asbury did not feel that their own research status was light years ahead of American companies, despite information from Germany:

ASBURY: We didn't have it complete, but we developed our own process for making GR-S [Government Rubber-S was the U.S. name for Buna-S]. Byron Vanderbilt developed a process in November 1939. He got a lot of help by reading the I.G. patent application for Perbunan [Buna-N]. By the following May we had a pilot plant running at Baton Rouge. We designed a pilot plant while he was doing his lab work. A year later we had a commercial plant running at Baton Rouge, although its output was only five or ten tons a day. . . .

GREEN: But a couple of these other rubber companies were also active. They might have been a little bit behind us; I’m not sure. (Asbury and Green, 21)

From Standard Oil’s perspective its technology was moving at the same slow pace as every other American company’s rubber research technology. In 1939 a cooperative effort between American rubber companies was not yet a reality.

Further, outcry grew over Standard Oil’s partnership with I.G. Farben—both in the political sphere and among the general public—regarding whether or not Standard Oil knowingly assisted Germany in their war preparations by way of the JASCO agreement. With both tension over the rubber problem and anti-German sentiment mounting, in late1941 the U.S. Justice Department entered an antitrust suit against Standard Oil, among other companies, for its part in the patent pact with I.G. Farben. Hearings followed the next year that questioned Standard Oil’s partnership with I.G. Farben. On March 25, 1942, Standard Oil signed a consent decree, forcing the company to turn over all patents related to Buna-S rubber gained while in partnership with I.G. Farben to the U.S. government. Turning over these patents to the government really meant turning over the patents to the U.S. rubber industry for the duration of the war and provided scientists with new information to assist their vital research.

Hear Carl S. Marvel: Well, we got the information from Germany.  That was a very interesting thing. The Esso people had had a little private conversation with the Germans, and they caught hell later because they […] cooperated with the Germans.  Goddamnit, we got the lead on how to get synthetic rubber right that way. (34)

After resolving the patent sharing, though, politicians had to set up a framework under which industrial, academic, and government scientists would operate before the scientists could even think about getting to work on large-scale research and development. The political battle over rubber that ensued would prove lengthy and costly.

Rubber from Petroleum or Grain?

World War II’s butadiene synthetic rubber was created via the petroleum process for butadiene—but that decision came after much political infighting and drama. Read More >

Another View

Listen to the CHF podcast, Distillations, episode 113: Burning Rubber, featuring an interview with historian Mark Finlay.  Listen >

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