Natural Rubber changed three countries

Latex collected from tapped rubber tree. Wikipedia.

There is a thing that is used every day, but the person who uses it does not feel it. What is it?

The answer is: rubber! Rubber is indispensable in our lives. Whether you are riding a bicycle, taking a bus or a car, the tires of these vehicles are made of rubber. Can you imagine a vehicle without rubber wheels?

The rubber that is so important to us comes from the latex of the Para rubber tree (Hevea brasilliensis). The rubber tree is native to the Amazon rainforest in South America. When we cut its bark, the latex gushes out. When it sets, it becomes natural rubber.

The indigenous people of Central America knew how to use rubber for a long time, although the rubber used at the time was not from the Para rubber tree, but from the Panama rubber tree (Castilla elastica). They will make rubber balls and hold “football” matches. However, because there was no technology to make pneumatic rubber balls, the ball at that time weighed about four kilograms! The Mayans love football, and every village has a “football” team, which often hosts games. The rules of “football” at that time were different from now. Although it is dubbed “football”, it can only be hit with elbows, waist, and raised knees, but not kicked with foot! When encountering major festivals or celebrations, “football” matches will definitely be held, and the team captains who fail must sacrifice their lives and worship the gods with their heads.

In addition to “football”, local aborigines also use rubber to make raincoats and rain boots, but natural rubber is easy to oxidize and decomposes in about a day or two; it was not until 1839 that Charles Goodyear from United States (1800–1860) invented the vulcanization method. The rubber becomes strong and durable after vulcanization. Although Goodyear invented the vulcanization method, he did not make a lot of profits; a tire company was named after him in memory of his contribution.

Before there were rubber tires, our tires were made of wood and iron. They were not shock-absorbing at all, which made people scared when they talked about traveling. After rubber tires were invented, they were solid in the early days. Although the shock absorption was better than wood tires, it was not until 1888 that John Boyd Dunlop (1840–1921) of Scotland invented pneumatic tires. Pneumatic tires greatly increase the comfort of travel, and since then everyone will not be so afraid of travel anymore.

The rubber tree latex is white. Why are the tires black? It turned out that the motor technicians of Silvertown, a British rubber company, added carbon powder to the rubber in order to facilitate the identification of different types of tires. Unexpectedly, the wear resistance of the tires was increased by more than ten folds. From then on, the tires have become black!

After the Great Discovery, Europeans discovered rubber; after the invention of the vulcanization method, the importance of rubber has risen sharply. When the Ford Model T was mass-produced in 1908, the rubber industry was thriving. At that time, as long as they declared that they wanted to open a rubber company, people would flock to buy stocks. This rubber fever even infected China at that time! At that time, one-third of the world’s rubber companies were opened in Shanghai, and China’s private sector invested half of the country’s annual income in rubber. Unfortunately, because the United Kingdom had already obtained the seeds of rubber trees at the end of the 19th century, many rubber plantations were opened in Singapore and Malaysia. When Malaysia began mass production of rubber in 1910, the global rubber price immediately collapsed, and investors lost money!

Since part of China’s private investment in rubber was from embezzlement of funds from people’s investment in railways, the Qing Empire asked Sheng Xuanhuai (盛宣懷,1844-1916) to deal with the aftermath. However, because the people in Sichuan could not agree to the government’s terms, it triggered the “protection of the road” movement. The movement caused a series of turmoil and suppression, and the Republic of China was born in this turmoil. Because Malaysia produces a lot of rubber later on, the price of rubber has been maintained at a low price after this crash. In addition, the two World Wars have stimulated the invention of synthetic rubber, and the price of natural rubber has never returned to the level in the early twentieth century. However, natural rubber must be used for condoms and aircraft tires.

In order to plant rubber trees in Malaysia, the British government allowed contract workers recruited from China who worked in tin mines to stay in Malaysia. These Chinese settled in the local area and became the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia (23.2% in 2020). The rubber industry in Brazil, where the seed was stolen, has since declined sharply, from occupying 98% of the market to only 5%. Most of the rainforest was full of wild rubber trees now used for animal husbandry.

Taiwan also introduced a variety of rubber trees during the Japanese Occupation era. The first introduction of the Para rubber tree was in 1903, and the first introduction of the Panama rubber tree was in 1908. It may be that the climate is not suitable. The Japanese rubber experiment in Taiwan ended in 1921. These rubber trees planted in Chiayi, Kaohsiung and other places can still be found locally.

It is truly amazing to think about how rubber trees have impacts on China, Malaysia and Brazil.

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.