Origin of Everything


How Your Rubber Ducky Explains Colonialism

Rubber is an extremely important part of modern living, from tires to clothes to building materials to adhesives. And though we don’t often think of it in the same league as oil or cotton, industrialization drove the demand for rubber which drove into intense competition between world powers hell bent on imperial expansion. How did it happen? Watch the episode to find out.

AIRED: December 05, 2017 | 0:06:49

besides being the main ingredient in all

of our favorite childhood things like

rubber duckies and bouncing balls

what can rubber tell us about the

history of industrialization and

resource development a lot actually

while we might not think about rubber

too much unless we need to use the

perfect comeback I'm rubber and you're

glue rubber is actually an incredibly

important part of our daily lives it's

in our car tires sneakers raincoats

building materials garden hoses cleaning

gloves and certain types of adhesives

and historically rubber was one of the

most important materials used during the

late 19th and early 20th centuries but

rubber was not easy to come by and

because of its relative scarcity in

comparison with the demand for rubber at

the turn of the century control of the

global rubber market was hotly contested

kind of like the price of a barrel of

oil is today and just like oil the

demand for rubber drove intense

competition between world powers

hell-bent on imperial expansion but

before we get to all of that we first

have to ask ourselves when did rubber

become an essential natural resource and

why did it get so popular so early

Mesoamerican civilizations use rubber in

a variety of ways primarily to

waterproof their clothing and to make

different items like rubber balls used

in sports and this was three thousand

years before rubbers popularity in

Western countries after the onset of

colonization in 1492 rubber became a

fascination in Europe and began getting

incorporated into different products

around the world so natural rubber

harvested from rubber trees was a

novelty and a hot ticket but there was a

very big problem with natural rubber it

tended to melt in very hot weather and

become hard and brittle in cold weather

so while there was excitement about

waterproof cloth in the 1830s in Europe

this rubber fever began to taper off

because of product failures so the fact

that it was harvested from tropical

regions coupled with his instability

during extreme shifts in the weather

didn't exactly make rubber an ideal

candidate as a building material in

Western countries but that all changed

with a man named Charles Goodyear in

1839 you know the guy from the blimp

while experimenting with rubber he

invented a process called vulcanization

by heating rubber and combining it with

sulfur and white lead

good you're discovered that he could

reduce the stickiness of natural rubber

and also prevent it from melting or

cracking when the temperature change he

named this process after Vulcan the

Roman got a fire and any resemblance to

the Vulcan salute is purely coincidental

so Charles Goodyear's developments

played a key role in changing rubber

from a mere novelty to an industrial

staple but just like any other resource

where human demand surpassed the amount

that can be produced naturally rubber

became a highly regulated and profitable

business for Western nations with

imperial ambitions and the history of

rubber labor and imperialism follows

similar trajectories of products such as

sugar cotton and oil but that brings us

to our next question what was driving

this new uptick and rubber demand well

there's a good reason for the name

Goodyear being synonymous with tires

because it was the late 19th century

advent of the automobile that changed

the shape of the rubber market although

the origins of the automobile could

merit its own episode the main takeaway

is this On January 29th 1886 two german

inventors filed a patent for their

gasoline-powered automobiles in two

separate cities their names were called

Friedrich bends and Gottlieb Daimler yes

like mercedes-benz and Daimler Chrysler

they had never met before and Benzes

model featured three wheels while

Daimler's had four at the tail end of

the 19th century and moving into the

20th century the automobile industry

exploded driving up the demand for you

guessed it rubber tires but this

increase in demand led not only to the

expansion of the auto industry but also

to one of the most infamous cases of

exploitation in world history in 1884 to

1885 king leopold ii of belgium laid

claim to a region of the african

continent that he called the Congo Free

State King Leopold's main interest was

enriching his own small nation through

the harvesting of natural rubber in the

Congo and because rubber demand was

increasing he saw this as an opportunity

to gain huge profits for Belgium which

he did Leopold's rule wreaked havoc on

the region

he turned the area into a forced labor

camp and his soldiers were ordered to

chop off the hands or otherwise mutilate

and kill Congolese workers who did not

comply or harvest enough rubber an

estimated eight to ten million Congolese

people died under King Leopold's rule

from murder

work he was forced out of the region in

1908 due to international outrage over

these atrocities but despite drawing the

outward ire of the international


Belgium maintained control of the Congo

until 1960 so why isn't Leopold's story

commonly told as one of the most

notorious accounts of colonialism

well that's because Belgium's control of

the region was in line with the West's

continued interest in dividing up the

African continent

amongst colonial powers but the history

of rubber shifted again during World War

two demand for rubber was it at all-time

high because it was needed for military

supplies like tires for tanks and

airplanes and other vehicles prior to

the war the US had attempted to

stockpile rubber from the British

controlled regions of Southeast Asia but

were only partially successful by May

1940 they only had a three-month

stockpile of natural rubber from British

supplies from 1939 to 1945 the u.s. ran

programs to find more uses for synthetic

rubber by June of 1940 inventors had

reinvigorated the call to make synthetic

rubber which had started in the 1860s

although earlier efforts had proven

moderately successful the new synthetic

rubbers derived from petroleum and coal

were more viable by 1940 Standard Oil

and Firestone began releasing synthetic

tires that could replace their natural

rubber counterparts and within two years

they were producing 1 million tons of

synthetic rubber a year by the 1960s

synthetic rubber derived from petroleum

began to account for 60% of the world

rubber market which it still does today

this is probably why we hear more news

stories about the price of a barrel of

oil and little to nothing about the

regulation of rubber unlike our

counterparts in the 19th and early 20th

centuries so how does this all add up

well it seems like rubber has been

around for thousands of years but it

wasn't until a vulcanization and the

invention of the automobile in the late

19th century that it actually became

more important on the world stage this

expansion of the rubber industry led to

exploitation as demand grew and it was

the increased demand of the auto

industry alongside scarcity during World

War two that led to the increased

production of synthetic rubber which

accounts for the majority of rubber

products we use today but the history of

rubber also shows us that the fight for

natural resource

isn't only regulated to things like coal

and oil but also items as seemingly

innocent as our sneakers raincoats

rubber bands and snow tires so even

something as ordinary as household

cleaning gloves can tell you something

pretty important about world history so


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