Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Collaboration

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

The collaborative process was not an easy one, especially for chemists from industry. They had to learn how to interact not just with scientists from competitive companies but also with academic chemists. While Baker noted that all scientists were welcomed into the rubber-research fray, Kolthoff believed that industry researchers “disliked the idea that university people would come in and stick their noses in their business” (18). While chemists like Marvel and his University of Illinois colleague Roger Adams had indeed been pioneers in polymer research, chemists from industry had a commercial interest in the outcome of the research and had been leaned on heavily by the federal government from the start of synthetic-rubber research. Kolthoff’s research was hampered initially by industry chemists: 

Hear Izaak Kolthoff:  “The problem was that they didn’t know what the problems were.  No, I am not joking.  In the very beginning, I know that Maurice Visscher, told me, he said, "I’m so damned mad and I’d like to publish that the big companies—Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone—they all disliked the idea that the university people would come in and stick their  in their business." And then we didn’t know what the problems were.  You asked what problem?  We didn’t have a problem.  We didn’t know the problems.  Surely we could analyze those things, and so…I recall that you and I went together to Goodyear—to Goodrich—and we were being told, "We want to know the purity of the standard substances, which are being used to make rubber, but there is already a committee working on them, so we don’t need you for that." (18)

Upon his entrance into the project, Kolthoff contacted the chemists of Goodyear and Goodrich to ask what he should be analyzing. He received an unsatisfactory answer: “We want to know the purity of the standard substances which are being used to make rubber, but there is a committee working on them already so we don’t need you for that” (Kolthoff, 18). Fuller also recalled the bumpy road to complete cooperation among industry chemists and the wide variety of companies involved:

There was resistance on the part of most of the chemical companies, especially at first. They did not like the patent agreement whereby the Government owned the patents obtained under the program with a right to license. They, however, had access to what our research turned up. Besides our branch under Dinsmore there were three other branches who let contracts. Some of these went to chemical companies who made chemicals or pigments used in rubber compounding. If I remember correctly Cabot (carbon blacks), Witco Chemical, Columbia Chemicals, American Cyanamid, N.J. Zinc Co., Columbian Carbon, even General Electric were involved in work under these other branches. Since the properties of the polymer are greatly dependent on how the rubber is compounded, it was important that we knew what was going on in these labs also. Later on in our program we opened up the circle of participants and Du Pont, Allied, Monsanto and others came in, but mostly listened. Both Esso and Phillips Petroleum were active as chemical companies. (32)
Marvel Diary

1943 diary entry from Carl Marvel detailing rubber meeting schedule. Carl S. Marvel Papers, CHF Collections.  Click image for full size. 

But as work continued, collaboration increased. Patents were shared. Reports came monthly. The cooperation was forced—but it allowed information to be exchanged on a scale not previously seen, and it contributed to a victory for the United States.

Throughout the war American researchers kept an eye on German scientific advancements through any means possible. They encouraged the “big four” to use the technological advances developed by JASCO. Goodyear chemist Albert Clifford recounts, 

We were supplied by the War Department, at various times, tires that had been recovered from German Army vehicles, captured tires. And they were brought into the laboratory and subjected to analysis to determine the extent of use of synthetic rubber, particularly in the carcass. As the war progressed, it became apparent that the German’s supply of natural rubber had become almost totally consumed and that the Germans were relying more and more upon their synthetic rubber for military tire equipment. (Clifford, no pagination)

 

Paul S. Greer, a chemical engineer working directly for the government’s Office of Synthetic Rubber, was involved in testing a large supply of synthetic rubber acquired at the end of the war. He commented on why the German research in the end had not reached the level of American research: “I don’t fault them for not knowing as much as we did, except possibly that business about using softeners to make the rubber more processable. In fact, our cold rubber is based on an idea that Livingston got from them. They didn’t have time to go ahead and test the effect of refrigeration of polymerization, as far as it related to tire testing” (18).

 

Kolthoff letter

Letter from Izaak M. Kolthoff to Herb A. Laitenen describing meetings at Mayflower Hotel, Akron, Ohio. Izaac M. Kolthoff Collection, CHF Collections.  Click image for full size. 

Both Baker and Marvel—one coming from industry, the other from academia—noted the willingness of scientists to in the end come together to get the job done. While the political fight over rubber may have delayed the scientific work, Marvel, Baker, and many other scientists just focused on the chemistry and their personnel. With industrial scientists finally on board, Baker noted that these Mayflower Hotel meetings—because of both the caliber of chemists involved and the emergency nature of their work—provided a lively atmosphere for debate and research sharing and, notably, determined that the chemists would do things their own way rather than perhaps the government-mandated way:

I think [the meetings] were probably a unique period of science in America. They were highly concentrated on the project of producing seven hundred thousand tons of synthetic materials. We realized the enormous responsibility for the quality of that, and for getting it properly applied. [...] We had the whole nation mobilized for war. There was lots of discipline. There was a lot of feeling that people had to do things in very formalized and compartmented ways. But these people weren't convinced of that. (Baker, 61)

 

The work was furious: Green recalls that Standard Oil engineers worked 54-hour work weeks focused solely on rubber. From 1943 until the end of the war committee members—including Marvel, Kolthoff, and Baker—were meeting regularly at the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio, to discuss the latest in research. The government had set the task and goal, but chemists ensured that the practical aspects of the program succeeded.

Continue to next section >

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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