Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Legacy

A General Electric Company engineer clad in an electrically-heated flying suit demonstrates the flexibility of a new rubber in subzero temperatures. From Mechanix Illustrated, December 1946. View full size here.

Rubber wins the war

As a result of this cooperative effort, the goal for rubber capacity set by the government was reached by 1944, and over 200 patents related to synthetic rubber were shared among collaborators. Before World War II the United States produced only 9,450 tons, or 1.2 percent of the total domestic consumption of synthetic rubber. The war-mobilization effort created literally tons:

  • one-half ton of rubber for each Sherman tank: 50,000 tanks equals 25,000 tons of rubber
  • 1 ton for each heavy bomber: 30,000 bombers equals 30,000 tons of rubber
  • approximately 160,000 pounds of rubber for each battleship
  • 45 million pairs of rubber boots
  • 77 million pairs of rubber-soled shoes
  • 104 million pairs of rubber-heeled shoes
  • 51 rubber plants: 12 plants for butadiene; 30 built for polymerization

In 1944 alone 1.4 million airplane tires were produced using just a fraction of the more than 773,000 tons of synthetic rubber produced in the United States. While the United States started the war with “not a single pound” of synthetic rubber produced domestically, by war’s end the nation had become the world’s largest exporter of synthetic rubber. Despite the political battles, initial resistance of industrial competitors, and the scale of the task at hand, chemists “on the ground” solved the scientific problem of synthetic rubber.

Hear Izaak Kolthoff: You know, I have to say, I think it is typical that non-technical science can be made useful to great advantage at the time when the country would really need to have them go in practical applications.  They never would have started anything in this field or any other field for which there was a shortage…there must have been other fields as well.  I think when we had to defend here last year at the Institute of Technology that I mentioned to the board the research that Meehan and I had been conducting, that shows typically how a purely academic thing—and not only me, but Speed Marvel…well, his work was, of course, in part, directly related to the big manufacturers of synthesis…so that might be a bad example, but you can devise something to do with anything of that nature […].  No, I think that the War has been a good…this whole rubber crisis has been a good example of how the scientists and non-technical scientists could be used by the government to great advantage. (20)

Visiting Postwar Germany

Our oral history interviewees' postwar trips to Germany, reveal a nation and an industry much changed by war.  Read More >

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