If you imagine the age of industrialization, you probably think of coal or steel, maybe even cotton. But probably less so of rubber. Yet rubber production was one of the most important industries around 1900. What the price of oil is to us today, the price of rubber was back then.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the raw material for the rubber produced worldwide came almost exclusively from rubber trees in Brazil and the Congo. Hevea brasiliensis is still the most important supplier of the necessary raw material. The name of the tree already hints at the place where this story begins: in the Brazilian Amazon. There, rubber was used by the indigenous population long before industrialization, for example to make balls.
With tires comes the rubber boom
When the bark of the rubber tree is damaged, a milky liquid known as latex runs out. The liquid can be collected in containers and then processed into rubber. The name “rubber” comes from an indigenous language of Peru and means “tears of the tree”. This name was adopted by the Frenchman Charles Marie de La Condamine, who was on a scientific expedition in the Amazon region from 1735 to 1745.
At that time, rubber was not yet particularly important in Europe. This changed with two inventions: vulcanization and the pneumatic tire. In 1839, Charles Goodyear transformed rubber into elastic rubber by heating it with sulfur and a few other substances, and in 1888 John Dunlop patented the air-filled bicycle tire.
At the beginning of the 20th century, rubber was then ubiquitous: not only tires, but also many everyday objects were made of rubber – from hoses and seals for industry to shoe soles or balls. The greatest demand for rubber was in the automotive industry. Henry Ford introduced assembly line work with the “Model T” and made the car an affordable mass product. It would have been even more affordable if it had not needed tires: On a $1,000 car, the set of Goodyear tires cost $400.
The rubber boom made the Amazon region one of the richest areas in Brazil. The rubber there was not obtained in plantations because the trees had to be spaced apart. A maximum of two trees per hectare was allowed, otherwise there was a risk of infestation with the fungus Microcyclus ulei. Therefore, it was also called wild rubber. The second large area where rubber was extracted was the Congo in Africa. There, the Belgian King Leopold II established a cruel forced labor system that went down in history as the Congo Abomination.
Henry Wickham as a biopirate
The colonial powers – especially England – recognized that rubber was becoming increasingly important for them. In order to take cultivation and processing into their own hands, the rubber trees were to be located in their own colonies. Ideally in plantations that could be managed more efficiently than the wild rubber trees. The only thing is that no rubber tree actually grew in Asia until now. This is where Henry Wickham comes in.
The director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in London commissioned the English South American traveler and explorer to bring rubber tree seeds to England. As non-fiction author Joe Jackson writes in his book “The Thief at the End of the World,” Wickham knew the Amazon region quite well. However, exporting rubber seeds from Brazil was illegal, so after collecting for a year in 1876 and eventually amassing 70,000 seeds, Wickham misdeclared them and brought them to London. There, the seeds were allowed to sprout and shipped to Singapore. Few of the plants survived the crossing, but there were enough to grow them there for plantations.
From wild rubber to plantations
After some time, huge plantations were established where the trees could stand much closer together than in Brazil – because in Southeast Asia there was no threat of fungal attack. In 1898, 22 years after Wickham’s act of biopiracy, the time had come: for the first time, rubber from Malaysia could be sold. The other colonial powers soon followed suit, and more plantations sprang up in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Within just a few decades, the ratio turned completely around: Whereas in 1905 99.7 percent of the world’s rubber came from wild rubber farms, by 1922 it was only 6.9 percent. All the rest was obtained from plantations in Southeast Asia.
Synthetic rubber and the world wars
The First World War led to a significant break in the history of rubber. Many countries, especially the German Reich and the USA, became painfully aware during the war economy of how dependent they were on rubber imports. Attempts were therefore increasingly made to produce rubber synthetically – which succeeded in 1926 with styrene-butadiene rubber. However, the costs were far too high for mass production.
The National Socialists had no other choice, since they were cut off from imports, and had large quantities of the starting material for the war called Buna (butadiene and sodium) produced. They also forced concentration camp prisoners near the Auschwitz concentration camp to do this, at the Auschwitz III Monowitz camp. One of the few survivors of this camp was the writer Primo Levi, who wrote about his time there in one of his books (“Is This a Man?”).
Styrene-butadiene rubber is still the most important synthetic rubber today. But even if there is now a wide variety of alternatives with other chemical compositions, natural rubber has not had its day – it is used not only to produce condoms, but also, for example, countless car tires or mattresses. Millions of tons of “tree tears” run down the trees for this purpose, mainly in Southeast Asia. Henry Wickham’s seed theft continues to have an effect to this day.