Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Charles Goodyear

About the year 1800 was born in New Haven, Connecticut, Charles Goodyear. He received only a public school education, and when twenty-one years of age joined his father in the hardware trade in the city of Philadelphia; but in the financial troubles of 1830, the firm went under, and the next three years was spent in looking for a life-work.

Passing a store in the city of New York, his eye was attracted by the words “India Rubber for Sale.” Having heard much of this new article of late, he purchased a life-preserver which he carried home and so materially improved, in conception, that he was induced to return to the store for the purpose of explaining his ideas. At the store he was now told of the great discouragements with which the rubber trade was contending, the merchants giving this as a reason for not taking to his improvement. The rubber, as then made, would become as hard as flint during cold weather, and if exposed to heat would melt and decay.

Returning to Philadelphia, Goodyear commenced experiments, trying to discover the secret of how to remedy this trouble. He was very poor, and to support his family he ‘cobbled’ for his neighbors. He tried every experiment within his grasp of intellect, but met only with failure. His friends, who had helped him, left him one by one; his failures continued, but he would not give up. The last piece of furniture was sold, and his family moved into the country, taking up cheap lodgings. Finally he found a druggist who agreed to furnish him what he needed from his store to use in his investigations and purchasing small quantities of rubber at a time he continued his experiments. At length, after three years he discovered that the adhesiveness of the rubber could be obviated by dipping it in a preparation of nitric acid. But this only affected the exterior, and he was once more plunged into the worst of poverty. It was generally agreed that the man who would proceed further, in a cause of this sort, was fairly deserving of all the distress brought on himself, and justly debarred the sympathy of others. His suffering during the years that followed is simply incredible. The prejudice against him was intense. Everybody characterized him as a fool, and no one would help him. A witness afterwards testified in a trial: “They had sickness in the family; I was often in and found them very poor and destitute, for both food and fuel. They had none, nor had they anything to buy any with. This was before they boarded with us, and while they were keeping house. They told me they had no money with which to buy bread from one day to another. They did not know how they should get it. The children said they did not know what they should do for food. They dug their potatoes before they were half-grown, for the sake of having something to eat. Their son Charles, eight years old, used to say that they ought to be thankful for the potatoes, for they did not know what they should do without them. We used to furnish them with milk, and they wished us to take furniture and bed-clothes in payment, rather than not pay for it. At one time they had nothing to eat, and a barrel of flour was unexpectedly sent them.”

It is a record of destitution, imprisonment for debt, and suffering from this time until 1841, when he began to see day-light. By accident he one day allowed a piece of rubber to drop on the stove, when, lo! he had found the secret, heat was the thing needed. Six years had he struggled on through untold hardships, and now he seemed crowned with success. He had found the desired solution of the problem, but he made a fatal mistake here. Instead of settling down and manufacturing his discovery, which would have brought him a fortune, he sold rights and kept on experimenting. By certain legal informalities he secured no benefit whatever from his patent in France and he was cheated entirely out of it in England. Although he lived to see large factories for its manufacture spring up in both America and Europe, employing 60,000 operatives, still he died in 1860 at the age of seventy-one, leaving his family unprovided for. The cause was not lack of perseverance nor energy, but the sole cause was lack of judgment in business matters.

The vulcanized rubber trade is one of the greatest industries of the world to-day, amounting to millions of dollars annually. The usefulness of India rubber is thus described in the North American Review: “Some of our readers have been out on the picket-line during the war. They know what it is to stand motionless in a wet and miry rifle-pit in the chilly rain of a southern winter’s night. Protected by India rubber boots, blanket and cap, the picket-man is in comparative comfort; a duty which, without that protection, would make him a cowering and shivering wretch, and plant in his bones a latent rheumatism, to be the torment of his old age. Goodyear’s India rubber enables him to come in from his pit as dry as when he went into it, and he comes in to lie down with an India rubber blanket between him and the damp earth. If he is wounded it is an India-rubber stretcher or an ambulance, provided with India-rubber springs, that gives him least pain on his way to the hospital, where, if his wound is serious, a water-bed of India rubber gives ease to his mangled frame, and enables him to endure the wearing tedium of an unchanged posture. Bandages and supporters of India rubber avail him much when first he begins to hobble about his ward. A piece of India rubber at the end of his crutch lessens the jar and the noise of his motions, and a cushion of India rubber is comfortable to his arm-pit. The springs which close the hospital door, the bands which excludes the draftsfrom doors and windows, his pocket-comb and cup and thimble are of the same material. From jars hermetically closed with India rubber he receives the fresh fruit that is so exquisitely delicious to a fevered mouth. The instrument case of his surgeon, and the store-room of his matron contains many articles whose utility is increased by the use of it, and some that could be made of nothing else. In a small rubber case the physician carries with him and preserves his lunar caustic, which would corrode any metallic surface. His shirts and sheets pass through an India rubber clothes-wringer, which saves the strength of the washer-woman and the fibre of the fabric. When the government presents him with an artificial leg, a thick heel and elastic sole of India rubber give him comfort every time he puts it on the ground. In the field this material is not less strikingly useful. During the late war armies have marched through ten days of rain and slept through as many nights, and come out dry into the returning sunshine with their artillery untarnished and their ammunition not injured, because men and munitions were all under India rubber.”

Ought we soon to forget him to whom we are indebted, in a large measure, for all this? The American people will long remember Charles Goodyear when others have faded from memory.