Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Germany Trip: Pre-War

During the interwar period German scientists were making impressive gains in polymer research, especially in regard to their Buna series of synthetic rubber. Various CHF interviewees—industrial chemists—traveled to Germany in the years before the war to gain access to research developments. Oliver Hayden of DuPont and A. Donald Green of Standard Oil of New Jersey both traveled to Germany for research purposes, but they also gained insight into a nation preparing for war.

Hayden, an early rubber researcher with Fisk and DuPont, traveled to Europe in 1936 to visit two large industrial firms, I.G. Farben in Germany and Imperial Chemical Industries in England. DuPont had recently invented neoprene, a type of synthetic rubber not necessarily suited for tires but suited for many other products. German chemists took an interest in this synthetic rubber as part of their overall research focus.

Hear Oliver Hayden: Well, the Germans very obviously knew they wanted to prepare for war.  And they knew that they ought to…if they were going into war that they had to have a rubber. They couldn't very well depend on natural rubber; they couldn't hoard enough to carry them through any intensive war. And they knew how to make butadiene products.  But where were they going to get the raw material?  See, their oil wasn’t there, but they had plenty of coal.

And when they heard that we were making [rubber] from acetylene, their ears popped right up and they wanted to make a swap.  They wanted to swap their butadiene-styrene rubber for…they were willing to make some kind of a commercial swap. They could have  Neoprene, we could have the butadiene.  So I went over there to demonstrate to them the quality of Neoprene, see what you could do with Neoprene, and to take a good look at their butadiene product. That's why I went over there into Germany.

I also went over into England and made the whole round of all the rubber companies over there, selling them Neoprene and what they could do with it. (27)

 

Chemical

Despite Germany’s preparations for war and increasing tensions among the nations, the possibility of gaining access to German butadiene technology—so important in synthetic-rubber research—was reason enough for American industrial chemists looking for a scoop to make the trip. Hayden’s trip, however, revealed more than just research: it painted a picture of a country headed for combat. While in Germany with his wife, Dorothy, Hayden’s hosts treated the couple to unheard-of luxuries, including being entertained at the home of the president of I.G. Farben. Hayden’s visit even caught the attention of Adolf Hitler—which, to Hayden, proved just how important neoprene technology was to the Germans. Hayden was also exposed to incidents that explicitly demonstrated Germany’s increasing preparations for war. Erich Konrad, head of rubber research at I.G. Farben and coholder of a patent on Buna-N rubber, by day could be found hard at work in the lab. But by night his work was of a different sort. Hayden explains:

Herr Doktor Eric Konrad was the fellow who startled us in the middle of the night. We were in bed when we heard this banging on the door, like he had taken a cane and banged on the door. I knew this fellow Konrad and had been working with him day after day. I got up and went to the door. “Heil, Hitler.” He stood there just like a statue and clicked his heels. He said, “Winterhilfe.” He never did recognize me. He put out his hand and he wanted money. He said that this would go to Hitler's Winterhilfe for the poor. He was dressed in a brown uniform with boots and was absolutely transformed from the man I knew in the daytime in the laboratories. (28)

Further, Hayden and his wife were awakened one night by the sounds of soldiers marching—to the Rhineland.

Marvel

Detail of Albert Clifford (left), Carl Marvel (right), and other Rubber Reserve team members in Germany, 1945. CHF Collections.

Other organizations sent representatives to Germany for a chance to gain knowledge about butadiene, but Standard Oil of New Jersey had a more intimate knowledge of German research through its relationship with I.G. Farben. JASCO was an organization owned jointly by I.G. Farben and Standard Oil to develop the manufacture of new chemical products based on petroleum or natural gas as a raw material. A. Donald Green traveled to Germany to visit I.G. Farben facilities in 1933 and found it a “fascinating experience from all angles, technical, social, and even political, since the Nazis were then in power” (Green memoir, 8). Green learned that the lab at Ludwigshafen operated differently from labs back home: “They would have little teams on a project. […] They also had groups working in competition with each another, with the same general objective but working out different process routes” (8). Certainly the technical information gained from Germany by Green and his colleagues at Standard Oil aided their research, but a question remained: how much did Standard Oil assist the German preparations for war?

 

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