Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Collaboration

Oliver Hayden (third from left) and colleagues at his retirement party, 1959. CHF Collections.

Competitors cooperate

The rubber problem would require the assistance of many more institutions than just the “big four.” Indeed, talented chemists from Bell Laboratories, Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Shell Oil Company, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now Polytechnic Institute of New York University), the National Bureau of Standards, and various universities, including the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota, were actively involved in solving the rubber problem. These institutions had plenty of chemists working in polymer chemistry as well as in petrochemicals.

Ralph Connor to Herb Laitinen

Ralph Connor of the National Defense Research Committee to Herb A. Laitinen, inquiring about his services for research, February 15, 1943. Izaac M. Kolthoff Collection, CHF Collections.  Click image for full size. 

The first order of business was the recruitment of an army of chemists. Robert R. Williams of Bell Laboratories, who was the supervisor of CHF interviewee William Baker, was named an adviser to Jeffers and was responsible for the recruitment of industrial scientists to the rubber project, a continuous job as new tasks required new talent. For chemists like A. Donald Green, rubber research began early on, and he actively enrolled talent throughout the war. For instance, Green recruited noted polymer chemist Paul Flory after having difficulty controlling the butyl reaction, which was of utmost importance to building and maintaining successful synthetic-rubber plants. More than just a scientific inquiry, appeals to scientists’ patriotism followed. Funding for projects was a draw as well; new government money in seemingly endless supply was available for rubber research.

Carl Marvel in the lab

Carl Marvel in the lab. CHF Collections.

While Goodyear and Goodrich were involved early on, it was not until December 1942 that a leading group of chemists met at the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio—home to some of the biggest rubber companies in the nation, including Goodyear, Goodrich, and Firestone—to discuss officially the actual research that would take place: basic polymer research to get the best rubber efficiently and cheaply. This group was called the CoPolymer Research Committee. Baker noted simply that this group of chemists “sat around the table in a room a little smaller than this and nationalized the rubber industry” (55). To Baker, it wasn’t government acts that nationalized the industry: the actions of chemists did. From this table of chemists who answered the questions about how competitors and Standard Oil would fit into the new framework of collaboration, two men went forward to recruit chemists from industry and academia alike: Robert R. Williams and Calvin S. Fuller, a physical chemist also from Bell Laboratories. Fuller laid out the task at hand and the lofty goals set for the program:

Our job was to muster and bind under contract all the chemical talent we could get to ensure that a satisfactory synthetic rubber was produced from styrene and butadiene in the plants that were then under construction. We were a back-up program. Our specific task was to learn all we could about the polymer and the process for making it. By the end of 1943 thousands of tons of GR-S would be coming from the plants. The Baruch Report had recommended that one million tons annual capacity be installed ultimately! A secondary assignment was to investigate other compositions, including the making of natural rubber—but the latter was not urgent. We had a free hand to setup contracts with universities and the rubber company labs who could contribute, including the four big rubber companies and Standard Oil. (32)

Baker commented that the government wasn’t initially on board with full cooperation: “The idea of university centers was revolutionary in Washington. They didn’t think they could contribute anything, and we said, ‘Well, that's wrong’” (55). Fuller and Williams personally recruited dozens of top chemists and coordinated their efforts.

New Rubber, New Instrument

The innovative nature of synthetic rubber research led to advances in analytical instrumentation, such as the Beckman IR-1.  Read More >

Building Synthetic Rubber Plants

Synthetic rubber production required approximately 50 new plants, fraught with engineering hurdles.  Read More >

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