RavenGroup News Rubber Series: History – Tears from the Weeping Tree

Rubber Series: History –
Tears from the Weeping Tree

Caoutchouc was already known by the original inhabitants of America for a long time before the first releases about this unique material reached Europe. During excavations in British-Honduras, playing fields of the Mayan Indians from the 10.th and 11.th century were discovered and caoutchouc balls from the size of a today’s football were found here. The first European who had the caoutchouc in his hands was probably Christopher Columbus.

When Christopher Columbus landed on Haiti on his second voyage to the New World in 1495, he met Indio children who were playing with a mysterious ball. Asked where this toy with its spring-like properties came from, the children explained that it was “tears from the weeping tree.” Although Columbus faithfully recorded this discovery in his travel journals – “…the Indians produce a water-resistant, sticky mass from the resin of a tree called caao-chu, a mass that they use to seal their boats…” – more than 200 years passed before scientists began studying the unusual material.

When the English mechanic Edward Nairne rubbed a piece of caoutchouc, across a pencil drawing in 1770, he discovered its eraser qualities. In 1823, Charles Macintosh, another Englishman, dissolved the rubber resin in benzene and painted the inside of a two-layered cotton fabric with it. The result was waterproof clothing – waterproof coats have been named Macintoshes in England ever since. At around the same time, Johann NepomukReithoffer of Vienna invented straps and suspenders by ironing thin rubber sheets onto woven fabrics. Yet the material still suffered from too many disadvantages: it became stiff as a board in cold temperatures, and it became soft and sticky when hot. And anyway, the smell of natural rubber was really unpleasant.