Adversity bounced off this rubber genius

Goodyear inspired the tire company and hundreds of other businesses, but he won no riches from his great invention

Here's a classic American business story and a refreshing antidote to recent revelations about self-seeking CEOs sneaking out back doors to cash in their stock options. Charles Slack offers the compelling story of American inventor Charles Goodyear (1800-1860), whose devotion and perseverance resulted in one of the great discoveries of the 19th century: the industrial use of rubber.

In 1834, this New England merchant set out to solve what Slack calls the "the Holy Grail" of the rubber industry: how to make it useful. Rubber's bouncy promise for the industrial age was slight. The reason? It couldn't take heat or cold. Raincoats turned to goo in heat and shoe soles froze in cold. "Noble Obsession" recounts Goodyear's five-year effort to discover a solution.

While other men in the industry had given up trying, we see Goodyear experimenting in his home laboratory. His wife and children make their way around the foul stench of turpentine and sulfur. In the kitchen, every cup and saucer is covered with rubber.

With his friends telling him to give it up, bills piling high, and his family nearing starvation, Goodyear finds himself sentenced to debtor's prison.

But this man was on what he felt to be a God ordained mission. With his Bible for support and with tanks of optimism, he pushed forward with experiments in jail. "In his mind," writes Slack, "Goodyear stood forever on the precipice of success."

Goodyear's writings about this prison period reveal his inner core. A man, Goodyear wrote, may "derive lasting advantage by having proved to himself, that, with a clear conscience and a high purpose, a man may be happy within prison walls, as well as in any other (even the most fortunate) circumstances in life."

Persistence and self-sacrifice were rewarded in 1839 when a batch of rubber that Goodyear had mixed with sulfur and white lead fell onto a hot stove. To his amazement, it didn't melt. Indeed, it had hardened! Here at last was the solution – later named "vulcanization" – to rubber holding its shape. Waterproof and airtight, it stretched and could be reshaped.

Forty years later came the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., which had no connection to Charles other than that they had borrowed the name of the man who had solved the great mystery of rubber.

Speaking of the discipline the inventor must bring to the process of wrangling an idea from conception to fruition, Goodyear wrote: "Between the bare conception of an idea, and the demonstration of the practicability and utility of the thing conceived, there is almost always a vast amount of labor to be performed, time and money to be spent, and innumerable difficulties and prejudices to be encountered, before the work is accomplished."

"Noble Obsession" offers the reader enough rubber trivia to dazzle at least one dinner party. For instance, you'll learn that a molecule of rubber contains some 20,000 units of eight hydrogen and five carbon atoms.

The reason it stretches – think rubber band here – is because a single molecule is a virtual line dance of 20,000 of these C5H8 combinations.

"Noble Obsession" also reminds us what a determined individual is capable of achieving. It shows how successful enterprises need the right mix of qualities. Goodyear had persistence in spades but lacked business acumen – "money simply annoyed him," writes Slack.

That sets the stage for the last half of the book where scoundrels, licking their chops for Goodyear's hard-won secret, crawl out from under various rocks. A host of patent disputes ensue.

While Goodyear is the protagonist of this story, Slack turns his camera on the many players in what the book's subtitle calls "The Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century." This brings high drama. For instance, Goodyear naively sends samples of his successfully vulcanized rubber to an English competitor, Thomas Hancock, who later would claim to be the inventor and would beat Goodyear to the British patent rights.

Giving us a final impression of what motivated the man, Slacks notes that when Goodyear died in 1860, deeply in debt, his last words to his wife were that he "bore no ill will" toward those who had stolen from him.

• Christopher L. Tyner has served as managing editor of Ethics magazine and most recently as Leaders & Success writer for Investor's Business Daily.

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