quest to synthesize materials that can be substituted for naturally
occurring substances has long been a challenge to chemists. By 1914,
natural dyes from plants had been replaced by synthetic dyes derived
from coal tar, celluloid had taken the place of ivory, and Bakelite
was replacing insect-based shellac. Nonetheless, these products were
produced on a relatively small scale.
contrast, natural rubber was a commodity of vast economic and military
importance. Automobiles, a key element of American social life,
could not run without rubber tires, and by the 1930s, the U.S. automotive
industry had grown rapidly to a size unmatched anywhere. A modern
nation could not hope to defend itself without rubber. The construction
of a military airplane used one-half ton of rubber; a tank needed
about one ton and a battleship, 75 tons. Each person in the military
required 32 pounds of rubber for footwear, clothing, and equipment.
Tires were needed for all kinds of vehicles and aircraft.
American rubber industry became the largest and the most technologically
advanced in the world. By the late 1930s, the United States was
using half the world's supply of natural rubber, most of it coming
from Southeast Asia.
of natural rubber caused by the advent of World War II led the U.S.
government to embark on a program to produce a substitute for this
essential material¼quickly and on a very large scale. There was
a real danger the war would be lost unless American scientists and
technologists were able to replace almost a million tons of natural
rubber with a synthetic substitute within 18 months.
work this industrial and scientific miracle, the U.S. government
joined forces with the rubber companies, the young petrochemicals
industry, and university research laboratories. The resulting synthetic
rubber program was a remarkable scientific and engineering achievement.
The partnership of the government, industry, and academe expanded
the U.S. synthetic rubber industry from an annual output of 231
tons of general purpose rubber in 1941 to an output of 70,000 tons
a month in 1945.
impact on the rubber industry proved to be permanent. Today 70 percent
of the rubber used in manufacturing processes is synthetic and a
descendant of the general purpose synthetic GR-S (government rubber-styrene)
produced by the United States in such great quantity during World