United States Synthetic Rubber Program
Harry Fisher, born 1885, inventor of rubber technology, helped the U.S. rubber industry replace tons of natural rubber with a synthetic substitute.
The quest to synthesize materials that can be substituted for naturally occurring substances has long been a challenge to chemists. By 1914, natural dyes from plants had been replaced by synthetic dyes derived from coal tar, celluloid had taken the place of ivory, and Bakelite was replacing insect-based shellac. Nonetheless, these products were produced on a relatively small scale.
By contrast, natural rubber was a commodity of vast economic and military importance. Automobiles, a key element of American social life, could not run without rubber tires, and by the 1930s, the U.S. automotive industry had grown rapidly to a size unmatched anywhere. A modern nation could not hope to defend itself without rubber. The construction of a military airplane used one-half ton of rubber; a tank needed about one ton and a battleship, 75 tons. Each person in the military required 32 pounds of rubber for footwear, clothing, and equipment. Tires were needed for all kinds of vehicles and aircraft.
The American rubber industry became the largest and the most technologically advanced in the world. By the late 1930s, the United States was using half the world’s supply of natural rubber, most of it coming from Southeast Asia.
Shortages of natural rubber caused by the advent of World War II led the U.S. government to embark on a program to produce a substitute for this essential material quickly and on a very large scale. There was a real danger the war would be lost unless American scientists and technologists were able to replace almost a million tons of natural rubber with a synthetic substitute within 18 months.
To work this industrial and scientific miracle, the U.S. government joined forces with the rubber companies, the young petrochemicals industry, and university research laboratories. The resulting synthetic rubber program was a remarkable scientific and engineering achievement. The partnership of the government, industry, and academe expanded the U.S. synthetic rubber industry from an annual output of 231 tons of general purpose rubber in 1941 to an output of 70,000 tons a month in 1945.
Visit the National Historic Chemical Landmarks to learn more about the history and development of the U.S. synthetic rubber program.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program