How Rubber Moved to Asia

Natural rubber is made from the latex exuded by a tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Latex is a milky fluid produced by some herbs and trees that may carry nutrients and may also help the plant to heal wounds. The rubber tree grows naturally in tropical South America, where people were using rubber long before the arrival of the first Europeans. In 1525 a Spanish priest, Padre d'Anghieria, wrote that he had seen people in Mexico playing with balls that bounced. It was not until 1735, however, that the French explorer, geographer, and mathematician Charles de La Condamine (1701–74) made the first scientific study of rubber during a visit to Peru. The first use Europeans found for this substance was as an eraser. In England it became known as India rubber. Then its waterproof qualities were recognized. Native South Americans used rubber to make waterproof shoes, and in the early decades of the 19th century North American manufacturers began producing waterproof garments and footwear containing rubber. Rubber becomes brittle when it is very cold, and plastic when it is warm. These disadvantages restricted its use until 1840, when Charles Goodyear (1800–60) discovered vulcanization, an industrial process that stabilized rubber, allowing it to be used over a much wider temperature range. American and European factories began using rubber to make flexible tubing, pneumatic tires—first invented in 1845, but then forgotten and reinvented in 1869—and soft toys. The rubber industry thrived, and demand for the raw material triggered a boom in Brazil, where the latex was collected from trees growing wild in the rain forests of Amazonas. Amazonas prospered, and thousands of immigrants moved into the region to collect and sell latex. By about 1870 Brazil dominated world rubber production.

The Brazilian monopoly suffered a fatal blow in 1876. In that year the English explorer Sir Henry Wickham (1800–67) gathered about 70,000 seeds from wild rubber trees in the forest close to the city of Santarem, in the state of Para. Wickham smuggled the seeds out of Brazil and took them to Kew Gardens, London, where they were sown. Many of them germinated, and 3,000 seedlings were sent from London to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1877, 22 rubber plants were sent from Ceylon to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The trees were growing there when in 1888 Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley (1855–1956) arrived as the gardens' first scientific director. Ridley spent years studying the trees, and in 1895 he discovered a technique for tapping the latex without seriously harming the tree. That made it practicable to cultivate the trees commercially. In 1890 Ridley exhibited the first cultivated rubber trees, and in 1896 the first rubber plantations were established in Malaysia. Most of the trees were grown from Ridley's seeds. Growers went on to produce hardier, disease-resistant varieties, and large rubber plantations were developed in Ceylon and Singapore as well as Malaysia.

In rubber plantations the trees were planted 13 feet (4 m) apart. In the forests of Amazonia, several miles often separated one wild rubber tree from the next, and the traditional method for tapping the latex damaged the trees. The Brazilian producers could not compete with the more efficient Asian plantations, but the Brazilian government was reluctant to introduce plantation production because it relied on the people working the wild trees to maintain its territorial claim over the sparsely populated Amazonas region. The Brazilian boom ended, and the migrant workers drifted away from the forest. The motor manufacturer Henry Ford (1863–1947) sought to revive the Brazilian rubber industry in the 1920s. His company planted more than 70 million rubber trees in Para State, aiming to produce 300,000 tons (270,000 tonnes) of rubber a year. Local people dubbed the plantations Fordlandia, but the harsh Amazonian environment caused the project to fail and the plantations were abandoned, leaving the Asian plantations producing more than 90 percent of the world's natural rubber.

The industry changed once more during World War II, when the Japanese took control of the Asian plantations. In the United States rubber products were recycled in the largest recycling operation there has ever been. It was forbidden to use rubber for anything that was not directly linked to the war effort, the speed limit on all highways was reduced to 35 MPH (56 km/h), and scientists were directed to develop alternatives to rubber. A synthetic rubber industry came into existence. Today there are about 20 grades of synthetic rubber, made from crude oil, and together they supply about 75 percent of the global rubber industry.