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.

A legacy

Orlando Battista

Orlando A. Battista worked for American Viscose Corporation, where he conducted polymer research. CHF Collections.

As the war came to a close, American interest in synthetic rubber waned. Many of the scientists, politicians, and citizens who had been asked to reduce rubber consumption for the war effort believed that the natural-rubber supplies would be refreshed and that synthetic rubber would no longer be needed. Given the rapid development of synthetic-rubber research and of the mass production of synthetic rubber in a relatively short period, no one was much concerned with redeploying governmental and industrial bodies to fulfill future needs. As Greer noted in his oral history, the synthetic-rubber programs of World War II:

showed that you could start almost from scratch and build a whole new industry that was operating within an eighteen-month to two-year period. When you consider what was done in such a short time, just to build all those plants is just amazing. When you consider you are handling things like butadiene, a gas under pressure, and styrene, which is an organic chemical that has some problems, and all these things have to be put together to make a product that you want....A productive capacity of roughly a million tons a year, it’s an amazing undertaking. (40)

 And yet it was one that was almost easily achieved.

Comparison of GRS and German Buna

Comparison of German Buna and GR-S from "The Status of Synthetic Rubber Research and Polymer Evaluation," by Carl Marvel. Carl S. Marvel Papers, CHF Collections. Click image for full size. 

Given all that was learned during the war about synthetic rubber and its production, other countries, as DuPont chemist James Burton Nichols recounted, were desperate for American knowledge, and some American companies were willing to at least consider licensing what they learned for the benefit of others. While some like “the people at [DuPont’s] Jackson Lab in Chambers Works were quite resentful that [the United States] had given neoprene technology to the Russians during World War II,” others were more than willing to establish relationships (Nichols, 43). The Swedes went to “the DuPont Company for a license, and so they sent over a delegation, which [Nichols] shepherded”; though DuPont “turned them down, because they knew the difficulties that were involved with it and didn’t want even to have secondary responsibility,” ultimately the Swedes “were desperate for rubber-like material. There was enough information in the patent literature that [Theodor “The”] Svedberg felt it was their best bet,” and so they began developing their own industry (43).

The legacy of the synthetic-rubber program and the collaborations that developed because of it are quite mixed. While profit is something that can be spread around without much difficulty during wartime—a time in which government is buying a lot of material—once peacetime returned, businesses had to function under their normal competitive natures. The open market during the war closed, and many companies withdrew their participation. Take, for example, Shell technologist Jack B. St. Clair’s reflections on the relationship between Shell and Dow:

Shell and Dow co-operated pieces of the complex at Torrance, California. Since Shell was foreign-owned, that took a special act of Congress, or some government action. I don’t remember that end of it. The other end I do remember. That operated during the war, quite successfully—synthetic rubbers production. The war ended, and Dow really didn’t want to keep going on it. So Dick McCurdy, then the president of Shell Chemical, bought the whole complex. To do so, it did take an act of Congress to do it—privatizing, if you will, among other things—but the foreign ownership was also involved. Then so it proceeded to operate as a division of Shell Chemical, for synthetic rubber. It lost money steadily. When one looked at it, it was producing the exact same materials that the Firestones, Goodyears, Goodriches, et cetera, were doing. They were Shell customers, as well as their own suppliers. Therefore, they set the price on any- and everything. (28)

Green discussed the postwar situation further:

When the special wartime uses for Buna-N disappeared, product sales from our plant dropped drastically. All four of the largest rubber companies, except U.S. Rubber, now had their own Buna-N production and naturally were not customers. In 1950 the Chemical Products Department sold our plant to U.S. Rubber. This was a blow to our chemists’ morale since the fine work they had done on the three synthetic rubbers, butyl, Buna-N, and Buna-S, seemed to have been for naught as far as profit to Jersey was concerned. They felt that research in the polymer field was now not of much interest to the company. (Green memoir, 22)

The decline in demand for synthetic rubber only lasted for a short period before the Korean War returned rubber to a high-priority issue. By the year 2000 the rubber industry was a $60 billion international enterprise with 15,000 establishments in the United States alone.

Hear Paul S. Greer: So ‘45, the war…this is the fiscal year ‘45, which was the year ending June 30th, 1945.  From that year led the peak production because [all plants] were going all out for the war effort.  Of course, when the war pooped out in late that year, […] the big impulse fell off some, so a lot of the rubber, synthetic…natural wasn't back strong yet, so synthetic was still going along pretty well. But it began to cut in here with the natural rubber coming back.  Then in ’48, the natural rubber, I guess you could get all you’d wanted. And also, here's the price of natural rubber. Natural rubber came down in price there [Greer pointed to a document], and we were selling synthetic for fourteen and a half [cents/lb.], well, people went to…switched to natural rubber. And even here [Greer pointed to the same document] was still about the same way.  But we began to make a little bit of cold rubber then, and then in 1950, natural rubber suddenly went up in price because of the Korean War. (21)

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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