27 / 04 2016

The Discovery Of Natural Rubber – A Little History

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Indigenous people from Central and South America have been using natural rubber for over 1,000 years. Centuries ago they learned to make waterproof clothes and shoes using the latex harvested from rubber trees. Almost five centuries ago, in 1525, Padre d’Anghieria reported seeing Mexican tribes-people playing with elastic balls.

However, it wasn’t until 1735 that French scientist, Charles Marie de La Condamine, on an expedition to calculate the diameter of the Earth at the Equator, sent back samples of this incredible material to Europe, thereby prompting intense scientific interest. Soon afterwards he presented a paper to the Academie Royale des Sciences in France.

The many uses of rubber were discovered in the decades that followed; everything from a pencil eraser to the revolutionary pneumatic aired-filled tyre. In 1818 Scottish medical student, James Syme, used rubber-coated cloth to make raincoats; a technology that fellow Scotsman Charles Macintosh refined and patented in 1823 to earn himself fame and fortune as the inventor of rubberised, waterproof coats.

Although there are an estimated 200 plants in the world that produce latex, including the common dandelion, over 99 percent of the natural rubber is made from the latex that comes from a tree species called Hevea brasiliensis. As the name suggests this rubber tree originates in Brazil, where the cultivation of rubber was keenly protected.

Nevertheless in 1876 (only 19 years before Dexine was founded), Henry Wickham, smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of Brazil and delivered them to Kew Gardens, in England. Here 2,400 successfully germinated with the seedlings sent to British colonies, including India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Indonesia, Singapore and British Malaya (Malaysia), which soon became the biggest producer of rubber. By the turn of the twentieth century rubber was also being grown in Africa, in Liberia and Nigeria, as well as in the Congo Free State, where it was gathered using force, under the reign of Leopold II of Belgium.

Nearly 28 million tons of rubber was produced in 2013, of which approximately 44 percent was natural. Asia is still the main source of natural rubber, with Thailand producing almost 30 percent of the world total. Rubber is still a vital resource today used in tens of thousands of different products.