The earliest beginnings of synthetic rubber, just like natural rubber, were also from a tree in the jungles of Brazil, but not the way you might think.
It is hot and humid in the Brazilian rainforest; the buzz of the insects is almost deafening, and the threat of being toted off by one of the larger specimens is constant. The sounds of the myriad birds fill the air, and the roar of some large carnivore occasionally breaks through the din. All in all, an average day in the jungle. The Chevalier de Claussen and his entourage swing their machetes, hacking through the thick vegetation, forging into the unknown. All the hacking and forging comes to an abrupt halt, however, when the Chevalier, encounters an odd tree.
That odd tree is known by it's Latin name as Hancornia speciosa, but the locals call it the mangaba. This medium sized tree produces a small, red fruit, about the size of a plum, with thin skin and sweet flesh. The odd thing about this tree is that the fruit also produces latex, the starting material for natural rubber.
This discovery intrigued the Chevalier, or maybe his mind was clouded by the heat. Whatever the reason, in 1856, the Chevalier de Claussen published his bizarre findings in the Journal of the Franklin Institute. Here's what the Chevalier had to say about the mangaba tree:
It bears a fruit . . . full of a milky juice, which is liquid India rubber. To be eatable this fruit must be kept two to three weeks . . . in which time all the India rubber disappears or is converted into sugar. . . . The change of India rubber into sugar, led me to suppose that gutta percha, India rubber and similar compounds contained starch. . . . A great number of compounds of the gutta percha and India rubber class may be formed by mixing starch, gluten or flour with tannin and resinous or oily substances.Well, today we know that the Chevalier was wrong, India rubber is made up of isoprene units, not sugars. We cannot ridicule him for his mistake, though; he was merely analyzing his observations and arriving at a conclusion that made sense. He didn't have complicated equipment out in the jungle to analyze the latex, and if he took the fruit back home, the latex would be gone. It was a good idea based on good science; it was just wrong.
Whether his way of making rubber was wrong or right, the Chevalier de Claussen is attributed as the first person to propose the synthesis of rubber.
While the Chevalier de Claussen is writing about synthesizing rubber from flour, this is going on in the rest of the world in 1856:
Sir William H. Perkin develops the first synthetic dye: mauve or aniline purple.
Joshua C. Stoddar builds the first practical calliope.
Gail Borden receives a patent for the first successful milk condensing process.
The first Neanderthal fossils are found in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany.
2. Wolf, Howard and Ralph. Rubber: A Story of Glory and Greed. New York: Covici, Friede, 1936.