Rubber—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

Rubber is one of the most common substances in the modern world, and certainly one of the most undervalued. If you ask someone to quickly name a product made of rubber, you are likely to get a reply such as a pencil eraser, rubber band (“elastic band” in Britain), rubber bathmat, rubber stamp, rubber toys, rubber balloons, etc. On further reflection, the person might add objects such as garden hoses, aprons, surfing wet suits, gloves, etc.

By themselves, none of these things have radically changed our social environment and how we go about our lives in it. However, take away any one of them and we are likely to feel a significant difference. This is why I believe rubber justifiably deserves to hold a place in the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

Although known for at least 3,000 years, notably by indigenous peoples of the Americas, rubber did not qualify as an extraordinary ordinary thing until relatively recently. Why? Because the rubber of these ancient peoples wasn’t like the rubber we know today.

In ancient times rubber was subject to weather conditions. If the weather was hot and sticky, so was the rubber; if the weather was dry and cold, rubber became hard and brittle.

In 1839, Charles Goodyear, a self-taught American chemist, found a way of eliminating these undesirable characteristics of rubber. Because it involves subjecting raw rubber to heat, he called the process “vulcanization” after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber was not affected by weather and would instantly snap back to its original form if stretched.

The lowly, ubiquitous rubber (elastic) band was invented six years later by Stephen Perry of the London-based rubber manufacturing company Messers. Perry and Co. In 1845, Perry patented his stretchable strips to hold papers or envelopes together, which is probably still their principal use more than 160 years later.

The Pneumatic (Inflatable) Tire

Because Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, it takes little imagination to suppose that he also invented the pneumatic (inflatable) rubber tire. But this would be incorrect.

While perhaps an ingenious inventor, Goodyear was far from an ingenious entrepreneur. When he died in 1860, he was $200,000 in debt, a massive sum at the time. Moreover, neither he nor any member of his family was ever associated with the globe-girdling Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company that honorifically bears his name.

The term pneumatic literally means “filled with air.” In 1845, vehicles such as horse-drawn carriages, stage coaches, haulage wagons, etc. had stiff wheels made of wood or metal. Because they did not cushion the jolts caused by rolling over rough, rutted roads, they could cause extreme discomfort.

In 1845 Robert William Thomson, a Scots civil engineer, got the idea of fitting vehicle wheels with a pneumatic tire (tyre in British English), which was a kind of inflatable rubber shock absorber overlaid with leather. His idea worked. However when manufacturing problems endangered the invention’s success, Thomson turned to making non-inflatable solid rubber tires. Later in life (1849), Thomson also invented the first practical, reliable fountain pen.

The first truly successful pneumatic rubber tires were created in 1888 by John Dunlop using vulcanized rubber. They were initially used on bicycles and became famous in 1889 when well-known cyclist William Hume used them in an important race. In 1895, André Michelin was the first person to use pneumatic rubber tires on an automobile, but with limited success. The first truly successful pneumatic automobile tire had to wait until 1911 when Philip Strauss combined a rubber outer tire with an air-filled rubber inner tube. This basic designed reigned supreme for several decades, but has since lost ground to modern tubeless tires. Tubeless tires consist of only a single rubber piece which can both be inflated and withstand the wear and tear of contact with the road.

As noted earlier, rubber had been used in its non-vulcanized form in the Americas for centuries, but was largely unknown in Europe until it was brought back in the form of rubber balls by Christopher Columbus during one of his four voyages to the New World (1492-1502). The Europeans were astonished at how well they bounced, so much better than the packed leather balls they had been using. The next landmark in the history of rubber occurred in 1615 when the Spanish discovered that it could be used for water-proofing leather and fabrics.

The name “caoutchouc,” which rubber is called in French and similar words in Bulgarian, Greek, Spanish, and some other languages, seems to derive from the languages of pre-Columbian Indians in and around the region of what is today the country of Peru. It means “weeping wood.”

The English word rubber is generally attributed to premier British chemist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) who noticed that the substance was good for erasing or “rubbing out” pencil markings. Hence, the name rubber. He commercialized the observation by putting a bit of rubber on the end of a pencil, thus inventing the common pencil-eraser (pencil-rubber) combination so common today.

How Rubber Is Made

Most natural rubber is made from the milky white substance (“latex) that oozes (“weeps”) from the bark of the Hevea brasiliensis tree, commonly called the rubber tree. A very small amount is made from latex found in dandelions. To tap (harvest) the latex, it is only necessary to make a V-shaped cut into the bark of the Hevea brasiliensis rubber tree and collect the drops that flow out in cups. The latex is then filtered, washed, heated, and reacted with acid to make the particles of rubber coagulate (stick together). The raw rubber is then pressed into slabs or sheets and then dried, ready for the next stages of production which, depending on the desired end product, can be many and varied.

You may have noticed that the previous paragraph began by saying that most natural rubber is made from a milky white substance called latex. I specifically used the term “natural rubber” because there is also a class of rubber-like compounds called “synthetic rubber.” By definition, a synthetic rubber is any artificial elastomer, i.e. any rubber-like substance composed of long-chain molecules (polymers) capable of being stretched. Synthetic rubbers are synthesized from petroleum.

Synthetic rubber first made its appearance in the early part of the 20th century. In 1909, a team of experimenters at the Bayer laboratory in Elberfeld, Germany, succeeded in polymerizing isoprene, which became the first synthetic rubber. The following year (1910), the first rubber polymer synthesized from butadiene was created by a team of Russian experimenters. Other synthetic rubbers include isoprene, neoprene, silicon rubber, etc.

Growing use of synthetic rubber was largely pushed by the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) and was given another significant boost by the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945). Natural rubber has lost significant ground to synthetic rubber ever since. Of approximately 15 billion kilograms of rubbers produced annually around the world, about two-thirds (10 billion kilograms) is in fact synthetic. Since they are so close in properties, if not origins, for the rest of this blog the term rubber will apply indifferently to both the natural and synthetic varieties.

As has been the case with so many products derived from natural resources in other parts of the world, the manufacture of rubber products in Europe and North America has had, and  continues to have, significant impact on the countries of origin, not only with regard to economic and social structures but also environmental pollution and degradation.

Computers and Rubber Products

Pneumatic (inflatable) rubber tires are annually manufactured by the hundreds of millions. As with virtually everything that is mass produced these days, computers play a key role in guiding the manufacturing process from sourcing the raw material, overseeing its transformation into tires according to hundreds of individual specifications, and then directing the finished products to tire wholesalers and retailers.

Computers also play a major role in the design and testing of tires. Complex analysis software acts on years of test data, allowing tire engineers to simulate the performance of key parameters such as tread design, ideal pressure, longevity of construction materials, etc. Because many design limitations can be identified and corrected before a prototype tire is actually constructed and tested, computers significantly contribute both to tire performance and safety at minimal cost.

The most important use of rubber by a long shot is in vehicle tires. As picturesquely observed by British science writer Chris Woodford, “About half of all the world’s rubber ends up wrapped around the wheels of cars, bicycles, and trucks.” Rubber is the chief element of the hard, black, vulcanized outside of tires. Inside, rubber is used to make the interior lining and, for tires that still have them, the inner tube. These are usually made from butyl rubber, which is both highly flexible and highly impermeable to gases (in this case air), so tires stay inflated for very long periods of time.

In like manner, computers also play key roles in the design and production of virtually every other product made from rubber in modern society. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps the most creatively satisfying of the plethora of rubber products is the rubber duck. Or so say many computer programmers.

According to numerous sources, numerous programmers use a rubber duck to help debug the software they write, and also to help write software in the first place. It’s really a psychological trick. Programmers who use a rubber duck say that explaining code to someone else is one of the best ways of finding bugs. Since they don’t always have a willing listener, they turn to a rubber duck as their would-be interlocutor. And results begin to flow.

Skeptical? Here is what one enthusiastic rubber duck user said about the hack.

I work at a company whose welcome package to new programmers includes a rubber duck. We also have a bigger version of the duck for really hard problems. Sometimes one duck just doesn’t seem to be enough, so we borrowed one from a neighbor to get more ducks on the problems. One time we couldn’t figure out why something wasn’t working right so we assembled a council of ducks to increase their power. In due course, the problem was solved. These rubber ducks have saved many a stranded programmer’s life and should be respected for the true heroes they are.

However, a mystery remains. In all my research I couldn’t find out why a rubber duck is favored and not something else, e.g. a rubber fish, a rubber rabbit, a rubber turtle, etc.

It seems there must be some deep-seated psychological reason for this, because programmers who talk to rubber ducks swear by it. And would swear at you if you dared suggest they discuss their programming problems with anything else, rubber or otherwise.

The real reason is probably happenstance. Apple computers are called Apple simply because Steve Jobs, co-founder of the globe-girdling computer company of the same name, like to eat apples.

It is probable that one of the pioneers of duck debugging just happened to choose a rubber duck to tell his woes to, and the idea was perpetuated. Some programmers who feel a closer relationship with their debugging helpmates affectionately refer to them as “rubber duckies” rather than the less personal rubber ducks, and perhaps even use them in the bathtub.

Today, the rubber duck image has spread throughout computing—and not always in a positive sense. For example, a so-called “duck feature“ is defined as a useless feature purposely put into a program so that the programmer can later remove it, giving the impression that he or she has upgraded the program when there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. This is not necessarily done for nefarious reasons, but rather to counter the unjustified belief that no program is ever good enough in its first incarnation, so at least one upgrade is always necessary, even when it isn’t. If a true upgrade is needed, this of course is carried out together with eliminating the duck feature, which served no real purpose in the first place.

More on the positive side, there is Cyberduck. This is an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client with free-of-charge cloud capabilities and support for Windows and Mac OS X systems. Cyberduck’s graphical user interface provides end users access to files from servers and other data management features over diverse locations, including file access, editing and storage options.

Then there is the USB Rubber Ducky. This device resembles a regular USB flash drive; however; when connected to a computer, it masquerades as a keyboard and quickly enters all its commands. It is used by programmers to carry out a penetration test (pentest), i.e. a simulated cyberattack on a computer system’s performed to evaluate the system’s security. In particular, the USB Rubber Ducky helps identify key vulnerabilities, such as the potential for unauthorized persons to gain access to the system’s features and data. On the other hand, it also helps identify strengths, thus permitting rapid assessment of a system’s key strengths and its weakness.

If you are wedded to Google, Yahoo, or some other major general search engine, you may not be aware of DuckDuckGo. The particularity of DuckDuckGo as stated by the company (founded in 2008) is: “Other search engines track your searches even when you’re in private browsing mode. We don’t track you—period.”

The name of the engine derives from “Duck, Duck, Goose,” a traditional children’s game often first learned in pre-school or kindergarten. However, a goose is not all that far away from a duck. Moreover, the game is also known as “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck,” so the love affair between computing and ducks is perfectly maintain.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once remarked, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” So let me conclude with a word of warning. In British English, a “rubber” is an eraser, derived from its use to erase or rub out pencil marks. Therefore, in Britain, asking someone to lend you a rubber is a perfectly normal thing to do. In the U.S., where “rubber” is slang for condom, asking some to lend you a rubber would not only be unusual, it is likely to provoke a decidedly quizzical response.