As Ralph Wolfe’s poetic prose confirms, rubber is as indispensable to modern society as steel and wood and mortar. We use products made of rubber at work, at home, at play, even when we travel. Automobiles, trains and aircraft rely on it for safety and comfort. Industry uses it to produce hoses, belts, gaskets, tires, moulding, and thousands of other products. Rubber in the modern world is omnipotent.
It comes to us from two sources: nature and man. Natural rubber is siphoned from cultivated trees on plantations in Asia and Africa. Synthetic rubber is man-made and is produced around the world in manufacturing plants that synthesize it from petroleum and other minerals.
Whether it’s natural or synthetic, rubber in its native form is virtually useless. But after chemicals are added, it takes on properties that, as Ralph Wolf noted, make it “totally unlike” any material the world has ever known. Depending on the chemicals used, products made of rubber can be as soft as a sponge, as resilient as a rubber band, or as hard as a bowling ball. As a result, we use thousands of rubber products with varying degrees of hardness in our daily lives.
Natural rubber has been available for centuries, synthetic rubber for less than a hundred years. Although man began experimenting with synthetic rubber in 1906, not until after World War II did he improve the quality to the point that it rivalled that of natural rubber. Wartime necessity became the impetus for the emergence of synthetic rubber on a large-scale basis when governments began building plants to offset natural rubber shortages.
Synthetic rubber plants were built around the world after 1945, primarily in Europe, North America, and Japan. In 1960 the use of synthetic rubber surpassed that of natural for the first time. Synthetic rubber has maintained the lead ever since.