Over the course of history, there are countless inventions and discoveries that have transformed the world and how we live our lives. We all know the big ones, but there’s one I bet very few people know about even though every single one of us are impacted by this great discovery every single day of our lives. And no, it’s not the wheel.
But what’s even more amazing about this transformative discovery that continues to impact all of us on a daily basis is that it was the result of an accident. A mistake. Experimental sloppiness. And a keen eye to recognize a long-sought solution laid bare by this mistake. A solution that solved what many called the greatest industrial puzzle of the nineteenth century. Today, a company named in this man’s honor is a Fortune 250 company. All from a mistake. In 1839.
So, what is this amazing discovery?
Vulcanization. Basically, it’s the process of hardening rubber by treating natural rubber with sulfur and then applying heat. It was discovered by Charles Goodyear when he spilled rubber on a hot stove while mixing sulfur and rubber in several pots. Yes. THAT Charles Goodyear.
Charles Goodyear, photographed by Southworth and Hawes. Image c/o Wikipedia
For background, in the early 1800s, the nascent rubber industry was booming as rubber products flowed into the US from England and Brazil. Among the hottest items were raincoats and overshoes. Generally, the way these products were created was by melting the natural rubber, sometimes combining it with a chemical, and then either pasting it over cloth for raincoats or forming it to fit various uses upon hardening. But in the mid-late 1820s, a major problem with these rubber products began to surface. In hot weather or if exposed to the sun, the rubber became odorous, sticky and even melted. And in cold weather, the rubber became brittle and cracked. This major drawback had such an impact on the industry it threatened to collapse what once was one of the hottest industries going.
Despite rubber products’ Achilles’ heel, several enterprising Americans saw the tremendous profit potential if they could solve the heat/cold problem. This led to a period of heavy experimentation mixing rubber with various chemicals during the 1830s, yet nobody could solve the problem. Several came close, but by the late 1830s the rubber industry was virtually destroyed as American consumers lacked confidence in rubber products.
Goodyear and several other Americans continued to experiment even as the rubber industry collapsed around them. The competition was fierce because of the enormous profits to be had by whomever solved the problem first. And secrecy was paramount, for the same reason. Money.
Goodyear’s pursuit of the solution could only be called an obsession. During his experiments, he constantly used the heat of a stove to test his rubber compounds to see if they would melt. He set up a crude lab in his wife’s kitchen where he mixed rubber with various noxious chemicals such as turpentine and nitric acid. But no matter what he did, the rubber continued to break down when heat was applied to it. He spent everything he had, and when he ran out of money, he sold his possessions, begged friends for money, and hit up investors. Goodyear even ended up in debtor’s prison, from where he continued to conduct his experiments.
For over five years, Goodyear chased after the solution despite setback after setback, both financially and experimentally. One day, when he was testing a compound that contained sulfur, he spilled some of the rubber on a hot stove. As he watched it char, he noticed the spilled rubber didn’t melt, which was part of the problem that doomed the rubber industry. And when he increased the heat, instead of melting, the rubber compound actually hardened yet retained its elasticity and flexibility, which was the long-sought result of all his experiments.
Charles Goodyear demonstrating the vulcanization process. Image c/o Getty Images.
Goodyear spent several more years perfecting the formula and obtaining a patent for the process he called Vulcanization after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. And the rest is history. Unfortunately for him, despite earning a good amount of money from a subsequent company he founded, he spent all of his fortune fighting patent infringements in the courts and died $200K in debt.
Goodyear Metallic Rubber Shoe Company, Naugatuck, CA. 1900 (image c/o ConnecticutHistory.org
There are a couple takeaways from Goodyear’s story. The first is one of my favorite topics: perseverance. The man went broke in pursuit of a solution. Ended up in debtor’s prison. Yet continued to believe and grind away until he made one of the greatest discoveries of the nineteenth century.
In writing, perseverance is an absolute necessity because it’s so hard to get published. It is a necessity because after getting published it’s hard to get noticed in the sea of books. It is a necessity because after a manuscript has been rejected by everybody and his brother, it’s hard to get back up on that dang horse for the umpteenth time and start working on a new manuscript. But if you believe in yourself and want it bad enough, just like Charles Goodyear, you pick yourself up each and every time. Perseverance.
The other takeaway is how serendipity can and does play a role in our lives. Goodyear slaved away for over five years trying and spending everything to solve a vexing problem, yet it was a simple mistake that put him on a path to fame. In writing, you can do everything right. Construct beautiful flowing prose. Grind away every single day on your manuscript. But sometimes, it just takes a little bit of luck. A mistake. And boom. Everything falls into place and you’re on your way.
So, when you’re having one of those days of doubt, and trust me, all writers do, think of Charles Goodyear and how a mistake revolutionized a failed industry.
Sometimes, all it takes is a little serendipity.
Have a terrific day.