Thursday, October 04, 2012

Rubber and how it went global.

Chapter 7 of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (by Charles C. Mann) deals with rubber, its source in the Amazon basin and its transfer to Asia (and to Africa very briefly),

The Technology

Rubber was discovered by tribal people in what is now Latin America. Mann points out that it may have been used in a traditional way for water proofing, but we now think of its use primarily in the Central American, pre-Colombian ball game. The first view of rubber balls in Europe occurred when Indians were brought to show to the Spanish court, and the Indians demonstrated the game. 

Observers were amazed. European balls of the time were leather filled with feathers. The Europeans had never seen anything with the elasticity of the rubber balls. Nevertheless, rubber remained a curiosity for centuries.

Part of the problem was that rubber melted in hot weathers and lost its elasticity in cold weather. Rubber shoes, boots, or clothing proved not to be trustworthy. Thus there was eventually a search for means to stabilize rubber.

Mann describes Charles Goodyear as the arch typical American tinkerer-inventor. Without any special expertise in chemistry, Firestone experimented for years trying to produce a more stable rubber. Eventually he stumbled on the addition of Sulfur to the natural rubber and on the fact that it retained its form when heated. Thomas Hancock, an engineer who had also been working with rubber, got hold of some strips of Goodyear's treated rubber, and Hancock himself was able to develop a process for the reliable vulcanization of rubber. Hancock patented vulcanization in England and Goodyear did so in the United States, both in 1844. Goodyear, an entrepreneur, went on to develop a firm and popularize the product. Neither Goodyear nor Hancock understood the chemistry of the process they had developed. (I note that a determined tinkerer may be able to invent a technology through sheer perseverance, but often needs a trained professional to bring it to commercialization -- think or Edison and electrical power generation or Ford and the factory system. It is often the entrepreneur who successfully commercializes the product whose name is remembered, and sometimes that is the tinkerer.)

It was not until the 20th century that a Swiss scientist demonstrated that natural rubber was composed of very long chained hydrocarbon molecules. Vulcanization involves cross linking the chains with sulfur under heat. The technology preceded the science.

Synthetic rubber was created during World War I, but does not have all the desirable properties of the treated natural product. Even today natural rubber represents a large portion of many products, including products of military importance.

The Amazon

Two species of rubber trees are found growing wild in the Amazon. One in the basin itself and the other at higher elivations toward the Andes. The rubber industry there grew up around harvesting the latex from wild trees found in the forest. The process is very labor intensive as a single tree doesn't produce much latex per day, and the collectors have to travel to many trees in the course of a day to collect enough to make it worthwhile. In the highly diverse Amazonian forest, rubber trees tend to be quite far from each other. While that provides safety from diseases and pests, it also makes collecting rubber from wild trees labor intensive.

The market for rubber was exceptional in the 19th century. Prices kept going up driving production up. The demand for rubber for more and more products continued to increase faster than the supply, driving prices ever higher.

The entrepreneurs of the time responded to the opportunities for profit and the shortage of labor in the sparsely populated Amazon region by essentially enslaving the natives and forcing them to collect latex. The process was successful in creating millionaires until the British public learned the truth.

The wealth flooding into the Amazon was concentrated in Belem and Manaus, which became boom towns with conspicuous consumption by the wealthy and seedy precincts catering to the enforcers of the business.


The theme of this book is the process of globalization that occurred after Columbus' voyage in 1492. In the case of Rubber, the imperial powers -- Britain, Holland -- sought to transfer natural rubber production from Brazil to their Asian colonies of Malaysia and Indonesia. They overcame the opposition of Brazilian officials and managed after some difficulty to get rubber trees to Asia and to find varieties that would thrive in Asian climes. That enabled the development of rubber plantations, with thousands of trees planted in orderly arrays. The latex could be efficiently harvested in the plantation setting, and eventually the Asians flooded the world market and killed the Amazonian industry.

In the 1920s, the Asian producers combined to raise the prices of their product. Harvey Firestone responded by organizing a plantation in Africa; Henry Ford a huge plantation (Fordlandia) in the Amazon. The Ford effort is described briefly in the book. It was a famous disaster.

During the Korean War, the United States interdicted the supply of natural rubber to China. The Chinese government decided that domestic production of natural rubber was necessary. Eventually they found the right approach to produce rubber in the limited area suitable for rubber trees. More recently, having expanded over the border into South East Asian nations.

Scene in a rubber plantation.

Environmental Impact

The rubber boom was early in the exploitation of the Amazon, and its environmental impact seems relatively small compared to what is going on now.

Mann describes the huge Chinese plantations as replacing the original, exceptionally diverse ecosystem with a monoculture. The trees use so much water, and so increase the runoff as compared with the original forest that they are drying up streams and lowering the water table. The original forest obtained moisture during the long dry season of the year from lasting fogs; those fogs are not lasting as long since the plantations have matured. Mann also points out that while diseases and pests have not been a serious problem yet, the huge monoculture plantations are ripe for infestation. Rapidly improving transportation into the region almost guarantees disaster.

(I am reminded of the destruction of the banana industry based on the monoculture of Cavendish bananas and the desperate search for a disease resistant variety that could replace it. We see other hugely destructive plagues, albeit none as disastrous as the potato famine described in my last post on the book.

Concluding Comment

Rubber has gone global. What would we do without tires for our planes, our trucks and our cars. Rubber tubing is ubiquitous as are rubber gaskets. It is found in playthings, clothing and many other products. The production of natural rubber has moved across oceans from its origin in South America. Industries are based on the production of rubber products. It has changed the economies, the politics, the cultures and the environment of peoples in many lands.

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