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.
The story of the U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program during World War II is a tale of competing entities forced for a moment in history to cooperate for a cause beyond profits or patent rights. When the rubber story has been addressed in literature and scholarship in the past, many of these narratives have focused on the importance of rubber politically, the collaborative effort—scientists coming to the rescue—and the important role basic science played in winning the war. The oral histories speak to those themes too; but because of their personal and conversational nature, they enrich the narrative and tell other stories as well. Only through the oral histories do we learn the stories of how personal interactions and the scientists’ unique perspective influenced the outcome of research and thereby the outcome of the war. Oral histories provide this behind-the-scenes look at the rubber problem, and, without the insight these interviews provide, the narrative would lack any understanding of how the scientists involved perceived their mission and how their laboratory work was or was not influenced by bureaucracy. Without these oral histories the memories of tense first meetings, awkward initial interactions between academic and industrial scientists, and the real processes behind the research that won the war would be lost. Competition and cooperation from the view of scientists in face-to-face meetings and tight laboratories is a different sort of competition from political enemies fighting the battle of petroleum versus grain, or Goodyear and Goodrich fighting to remain the supreme rubber company of the nation. These scientists competed against time and deadlines, competed against opinions of others regarding their work, and competed as a group to ensure that the United States won. The legacy of the U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program, beyond the sheer astonishing achievement of a numerical and physical goal—hundreds of thousands of tons of rubber—is the lesson that scientists were neither purely collaborative nor purely competitive: both of these characteristics interrelate in research and in “big” discoveries. Solving the rubber problem required that competitive nature—what Baker recalled as groups maintaining their own competitive and, in some cases, corporate identities; but in a “great hurry” these scientists and their abilities were used for one of the most important practical problems in World War II.