Rubber Matters

Summer 1942: A mechanic adjusts a man's tires to prevent excessive tire wear. From the Office of War Information. View full size here .

The United States’ entry into World War II required the mobilization of, frankly, everyone. From soldiers to members of American households, all citizens needed to participate to their fullest to help win the war—scientists were no exception. During the war an expansive group of talented scientists was mobilized to form the U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program, whose major purpose was to create an American synthetic rubber where none had existed. In addition, since troops and machinery needed rubber immediately, American synthetic rubber had to be made quickly in mass quantities and be of the best quality possible. The importance of rubber to the war has often been overlooked, especially in light of the attention paid to the Manhattan Project and its dramatic result. But without rubber, troops on the ground would have been left without shoes, tanks, life vests, tires, and insulation for thousands of yards of cables. Rubber was imperative for a victory.

This exhibit, created by the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Center for Oral History, tells the story of the U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program during World War II from the unique perspective of our oral history interviewees. Within these histories, scientists involved firsthand speak about the “frontline” experience in the rubber program. The process of collaboration on such a monumental scale was tricky: a group of industry rivals, academics, and companies of warring nations, were all thrown into an urgent research situation. Making rubber required the collaboration of each of these competitors and institutions.  By war’s end, American synthetic rubber production moved at a pace of over 770,000 tons* yearly compared with the starting point of zero. Our interviewees recount the ways in which the scientific and engineering communities solved the "rubber problem" (as it came to be known) in such a short period, providing the United States with enough material to support its war effort.

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, triggering the U.S. entrance into war and effectively cutting off 97 percent of the United States’ natural rubber supply, which was located in the Far East. Suddenly, the nation faced an urgent rubber problem. Rubber was a component of thousands of materials necessary to the war: gas masks, life rafts, tanks, bombers, ships, and vehicles, as well as soldiers’ shoes and other sundry equipment. What’s more, each product needed to be mass produced as soon as possible. With little rubber stockpiled (not enough to supply goods for even one year of war) and no commercial-scale process in place for creating a standardized type of rubber, the nation faced a potential wartime handicap: either bring together the necessary folks to do the job, create specific requirements, specific standards—in terms of such characteristics as, for example, durability, flexibility, and toughness—for rubber, conserve rubber already available, and put scientists and bureaucrats to work—fast—or lose.

Enter the Exhibit >

Oral Histories referenced in this online exhibit include:

Willard C. Asbury

A. Donald Green

Carl S. Marvel

William O. Baker

Paul S. Greer

James Burton Nichols

Arnold O. Beckman

Oliver M. Hayden

Jack B. St. Clair

Albert M. Clifford

Izaac M. Kolthoff

Waldo L. Semon

Calvin S. Fuller

Herman Mark

 

Click here for a more detailed description of each of the oral histories in this collection.

* Long ton is the standard industrial unit of measurement for rubber. A long ton weighs 2,240 pounds and is approximately 1.12 times as much as a short ton, which is 2,000 pounds. A metric ton (or tonne in the United Kingdom) is 2,205 pounds. Using the word ton can be confusing when the exact measurements are required.
The Clifford and Semon oral histories are part of the University of Akron ACS Rubber Division Oral History Collection.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@
chemheritage.org
.