3,500 Years of Rubber
When Europeans arrived in the New World, they observed the people of Mesoamerica (Mexico today) using a material that was naturally waterproof, elastic, tough, adhesive, and the coolest property of all... it bounced. With the later discovery of electricity, it even made for a great electrical insulator (pretty neat, huh?).
This substance which came from a local tree that produced a sap which formed into a natural latex. They called it called "ōlli", which in Nahuatl (an indigenous language in central Mexico if you're wondering) means rubber, or latex, which has been harvested in the Americas for more than 3,500 years. The modern Spanish word "hule" even traces its etymological ancestry to this root. In honor of this versatile substance, we've decided to name our company Olli.
Rubber tree leaves Olli logo
The story of rubber is one that is oftentimes blurred in controversy, the kind of cloak-and-dagger stuff that's so weird it can only be true. Starting from the Aztecs who played with a bouncy rubber ball, a ring and some sticks. (Do I even need to mention here what would happen to the losing team?!??!). I'll leave the surprise ending for you, gentle reader, to research on your own.
The world's oldest rubber ball?
Let's fast forward a few hundred years to the 1800's. The rubber industry was on the verge of collapse. People had spent their entire life savings investing in rubber plantations because it possessed such cool, previously-discussed qualities. It could have, should have, might have made bank, but there was just one... small... problem. It would become rock-solid in cold and melt when hot. So, imagine you buy a nice pair of rubber shoes and you decide to take a walk on a sweltering summer day, your soles would become a gooey mess in no time. At the time, the average lifespan of a rubber company was five years before it went belly up. By the 1830's the general consensus was that rubber. was. done.
Charles Goodyear Natural rubber latex Vulcanized rubber
Meet Charles Goodyear, an American inventor who, armed with zero knowledge of chemistry, a can-do attitude, and an unhealthy obsession for all things rubber (pretty sure there is a more clinical description for that nowadays) just couldn't see how something so versatile could go to waste. So he spent the next five years years tinkering in his attic with toxic chemicals and probably driving his wife and neighbors berserk.
One day the excited inventor famously (and accidentally) dropped a glob of latex mixed with a little sulfur and lead on a sizzling-hot pot-bellied stove where it didn't melt, but turned leathery. Oh yeah! He patented his technique in 1844, which he called "vulcanization", named after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Did he make bazillions from his humanity-changing patent? Nope. After years of failure, poverty, bankruptcy, imprisonment for debt, and even wearing a suit of rubber to cruise around town, Charles Goodyear died leaving his family $200,000 in the hole. Genius is so under-appreciated.
Rubber tree seeds
But, hey! After that, people couldn't get enough! The trouble was that the rubber tree was a finicky thing. It liked hot, tropical weather and would die in colder climates. The bulk of production occurred in the rubber tree's (hevea brasiliensis) native Brazil, but the Brazilian government was (rightly) a little protective. The British Empire really wanted in on the cash cow, too, but the problem was that it was illegal to export seeds from Brazil. I guess that didn't stop Henry Wickham from borrowing a few, I mean, smuggling, er... stealing 70,000 seeds to Kew Gardens in England in 1876. (Ahem.) (Seriously, how does one not notice that many seeds going missing??) As a result botanists dashed around the colonies with clippings in the hopes of making a whole lot of moolah. It was first cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia . Later on it would find its way to the Congo, Liberia, Nigeria, Thailand, Vietnam, southern China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Rubber tree forest in Sri Lanka
(But wait. There's more.)
By 1886, industrialization was in full-swing and Karl Benz (the Benz in Mercedez-Benz) invented the first gasoline-powered automobile. In 1888, realizing that what a car really needed was a sweet set of wheels, two brothers from Akron, Ohio decided to name their company, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company after the man who started it all. And here's a bit of family history. Nearly everyone on my father's side worked for Goodyear from the 1920's. My grandfather began as an apprentice as a teenager in the 1930's and eventually retired as Chief Engineer. One great-uncle even disappeared to Brazil for a few years to build a rubber plant. I grew up hearing stories about rubber, and later on went trouncing through rubber forests in Vietnam, Thailand, and Sri Lanka in the hopes of making natural rubber flip flops. I guess you could say that rubber is in my blood.
Grandpa Shuster as a young man in 1927
These days rubber is everywhere. It is generally used to protect ourselves (from ourselves), and can now be found in everyday items such as tires, rubber gloves, balloons, erasers, shoes, condoms, and rubber bands. Entire economies are made from the humble tree which produces billions of dollars of rubber every year. We owe a lot to the rubber tree.