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The Story of White Gold

The French Scientist, Charles Marie de la Condamine, was amazed. Exploring the valley of the Amazon, he happened to see native Indians using squirt guns. When they went to a feast, they used them to squirt each other, playfully. But it was the material from which the squirt pistols were made that surprised the French scientist most. Flexible, unbreakable, water proof, elastic and easily molded into different shapes, it was, De la Condamine discovered, a kind of tree gum. He used sheets of the elastic material to wrap up his delicate instruments, and he also sent some samples of it to Paris. When he saw the tree from which it came, he found that the gum flowed out of the cuts made in the bark in white drops, almost like tears. So he called it the Caoutchouc, an Indian word meaning “weeping tree”. We call the processed gum rubber.

The French Scientist, Charles Marie de la Condamine, was amazed. Exploring the valley of the Amazon, he happened to see native Indians using squirt guns. When they went to a feast, they used them to squirt each other, playfully. But it was the material from which the squirt pistols were made that surprised the French scientist most.

Flexible, unbreakable, water proof, elastic and easily molded into different shapes, it was, De la Condamine discovered, a kind of tree gum. He used sheets of the elastic material to wrap up his delicate instruments, and he also sent some samples of it to Paris.

When he saw the tree from which it came, he found that the gum flowed out of the cuts made in the bark in white drops, almost like tears. So he called it the Caoutchouc, an Indian word meaning “weeping tree”. We call the processed gum rubber.

Rubber had been known for centuries outside Europe, for it is obtained from a variety of tropical trees. Early pictures of ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians show them playing games with rubber balls, several thousand years ago. Long before Columbus discovered America, the Amazon Indians were using balls, water-containers and face masks made from rubber. In India and China there is evidence that rubber has been known for several thousand years, but Europeans had never seen or heard of it until Columbus discovered the New World and saw native boys playing with rubber balls.

RUBBER TREE

Brought to Europe by De la Condamine nearly 300 years later, rubber was to help change the whole of the Western way of life, although at first it was considered to be not worth producing from economic point of view.

North American seamen, who were trading with South American countries, saw Amazon Indians making waterproof rubber boots. The surprised seamen bought and wore the boots to keep their feet dry at sea, and North American traders bought plenty of them to sell at home. But the rubber business still did not develop well.

The trouble was that heat made the rubber grow sticky, smell unpleasant and melt, while the cold made it hard and easy to break. It was Charles Goodyear, an American inventor, who solved the problem in 1839.

RUBBER PRODUCTS

Goodyear found that by mixing sulfur with rubber and heating it ( a process known as vulcanization) he could produce a tough rubber which could stand heat or cold and last long.

Suddenly rubber became a most useful product. Almost all kinds of things could be made from it. Demand for it increased, and the price rose.

Adventurous traders came in great numbers to the Amazon region, searching the forests for rubber trees. Along the Amazon River and its tributaries they travelled in their canoes, while Indians left their villages and fields to collect the valuable white liquid.

The village of Manaus became a developing town, where the rubber businessmen built their fine houses. It had wide streets and a grand opera house.

But a few people thought it was unwise to depend entirely on the wild rubber trees of the Amazon valley. They began to think that supplies might one day finish. Rubber plantations might provide the solution.

In 1866, a young Englishman named Henry Wickham set out for South America. He finally set up a rubber plantation in Brazil, in the Amazon valley. Sometimes later he received a letter from Sir Joseph Hooker, the Director of Kew Botanical Gardens, asking him to collect seeds from Brazilian rubber trees and send them to England. One attempt had already been made, but the seeds had died on the long, hot journey from Brazil.

In 1873, Wickham collected two thousand rubber seeds, packed them in open baskets between layers of green banana leaves and then chartered a ship to carry him and his seeds back to England.

But he still had to get past the customs officials at the harbor, and Wickham feared that when they found the 2,000 rubber-tree seeds, they would postpone his trip before they got a clearance from their superiors in Rio de Janeiro (capital of Brazil). The postponement could damage the seeds and make them unable to grow properly at Kew. They could also take all the seeds and prohibit the shipment at all, for the removal of the valuable things in great numbers might be against the interests of Brazil.

Fortunately the customs officials were sympathetic when Wickham told them that he was carrying botanical samples for scientific purposes at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Once aboard, Wickham asked the captain to move the vessel out of the port as quickly as possible before the officials could change their minds.

Soon, thousands of new rubber trees, of the best gum producing variety in the Amazon region, were growing well at Kew. Then the seedlings were sent to Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Malaya, to start big new plantations.

Until 1910, Brazil was still producing nine-tenths of the world’s rubber, but after that the new plantations of the Far East slowly took over and provided most of the world’s supplies.

Today, rubber is used in thousands of articles which we consider part of our daily life. Without rubber for tires and engine parts, cars and airplanes would find it almost impossible to move. Rubber is used in refrigerators, washing machines, electrical appliances, television sets and thousands of other things.

Today’s armies move along on rubber. Jeeps, tanks, armored cars, airplanes and all kinds of military vehicles which carry troops, equipment and supplies would be unable to travel without rubber for tires and engines.

When the Japanese army occupied the Malay peninsula during the Second World War, cutting off 95 per cent of the world’s rubber supplies, Western countries made serious efforts to produce synthetic rubber. The scientists were successful and now natural and synthetic rubbers are both used extensively.

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interesting...

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