The Christmas season is upon us and with it the first wonderful snowfall in northern Illinois.
With the spirit of Christmas, I would like to tell you the story of Charles Goodyear. This story being first introduced to me by my daughter when she wrote a paper on him in fourth grade. A story that will stay with me till the end of my days.
Charles Goodyear is best known for his invention of vulcanized rubber. Vulcanizing is the process of hardening and strengthening rubber. I know … BORING! But read on. It’s not what he did or the method of his invention, but what he went through in his life to accomplish this achievement.
First of all, there was not a Goodyear Tire company in his lifetime. That company was created 38 years after his death and the name was chosen in his honor.
The story takes place in the 1800’s. Charles Goodyear was born in New Haven, Connecticut (USA) in the year 1800. His first venture was opening a hardware store in Philadelphia which sold items made by his factory that produced ivory, buttons and mostly farm implements. During his hardware business, his health was also failing as he developed dyspepsia: a medical condition characterized by chronic or recurrent pain in the upper abdomen, upper abdominal fullness and feeling full earlier than expected when eating. FAILURE in health. After seeing some great success, his hardware store failed and went bankrupt. FAILURE in business. And because Goodyear had extended credit too freely, losses from non-paying customers mounted. Under existing law, he was imprisoned time after time for failing to pay his debts. PRISON! Imagine prison life in the 1800’s. I’m sure they didn’t have cable TV. This alone would break most people’s spirit.
During this time, however, he visited a store and saw that the store owner had been disgusted with all of his rubber items which had melted into a gooey mess from the hot weather. You see, rubber was very soft in those days and was not durable and could not withstand changes in weather. In short, it was crap. Charles was fascinated by this and made up his mind to do something about it.
For the next ten years he worked hard on the solution to this problem with rubber. He boiled a compound of the gum and magnesia in quicklime and water and he thought it was the solution, obtained a patent for the process, and sold his product; but it was soon found that a drop of weak acid, such as apple-juice or vinegar and water, destroyed the effects of the lime and made the cloth sticky. FAILURE. A year later he worked with nitric acid on rubber and had a store with a partner, but the panic of 1837 swept away the fortune of his partner, and left Goodyear penniless. PENNILESS! He repeatedly tried to get financial aid to get his product on the market, but was regarded as an object of ridicule, and was called an India-rubber maniac. RIDICULE.
The most persistent story is that one February day he wandered into Woburn’s general store to show off his latest gum-and-sulphur formula. People in the store started to ridicule him and laugh at him. This angered Goodyear and he waved his sticky fistful of gum in the air. It flew from his fingers and landed on the sizzling-hot potbellied stove.
When he bent to scrape it off, he found that instead of melting like molasses, it had charred like leather. And around the charred area was a dry, springy brown rim — “gum elastic” still, but so remarkably altered that it was virtually a new substance. He was finally onto something and had made weatherproof rubber. This was cited as one of history’s most celebrated “accidents.”
The winter after Goodyear’s discovery was the blackest of his life. Dyspeptic and gout-racked, his health broken, he hobbled about his experiments on crutches. At night he lay awake, afraid that he would die and the secret die with him. He pawned his watch and the household furniture. When even the dinnerware was gone, he made rubber dishes to eat from. Then the food was gone too.
That spring he went to Boston to look up friends, found none, was jailed for nonpayment of a $5 hotel bill, and came home to find his infant son dead. Unable to pay for a funeral, Goodyear hauled the little coffin to the graveyard in a borrowed wagon. Of the 12 Goodyear children, six died in infancy. At this point, many men would be beside themselves and would fall into some endless abyss of depression or even suicide.
There was a time where he worked on his rubber experimentation while in prison. His wife would bring him the raw rubber gum and he found ways to work on it in the prison kitchen. I find this act of persistence alone, amazing and inspiring.
Goodyear lived for sixteen years after his discovery of the vulcanization process. During the last six he was unable to walk without crutches. He was indifferent to money. Through endless court battles for piracy of his invention he ended up $200,000 dollars (or 128,038 British pounds) in debt. In today’s market that amount would come to about twenty million dollars in debt. Almost surreal isn’t it.
Goodyear died July 1, 1860, while traveling to see his dying daughter. After arriving in New York, he was informed that she had already died. He collapsed and was taken to the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City, where he died at the age of 59.
So, after all the terrible suffering and tragedy you might say what possible good came of all of this. What moral is there?
To make his discoveries of still greater service to mankind was his whole aim. It was others who made fortunes out of his inventions.
Even though he died in debt, the accumulated royalties made his family comfortable. His son Charles Jr., inherited something more precious — inventive talent — and later built a small fortune on shoemaking machinery.
Today there is a cultivated rubber tree for every two human beings on earth. The United States alone imports almost half of it, and synthesizes as much or more from petroleum. Nearly 300,000 Americans earn their livelihoods in rubber manufacturing.
The whole huge apparatus owes its existence to the invincible little fanatic who might have died a bitter man, but didn’t.
Goodyear wrote. “Life should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.”
My take on this whole, incredible story, is that you may not be a success in your lifetime, but you just might leave a legacy for your family and the rest of mankind. A legacy that leaves the world in a much better place. There is something to be said about persistence and the strong belief in what you are doing. I can’t imagine myself having half the perseverance that Goodyear did, but I wish I did.
Charles Goodyear did not die a poor man. He is one of the richest men in heaven.