From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The rubber band was broadcast on 30th October 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
A rubber band is the quiet little helper of an organised life. It may be a minor character in the sometimes competitive history of rubber itself but that doesn’t lessen its importance. Rubber was made using latex, the milky sap of an Amazonian rainforest tree, Hevea brasiliensis. It was imported from Brazil to Europe in the 18th century, and often used just as an eraser – a rubber to rub out pencil markings. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the first rubber plantations were established across south east Asia, but by then the rubber band was already becoming something of a hero.
It was invented in 1845 by a businessman called Stephen Perry. He had just taken over his father’s pen-making business in London and when a friend of his, the brilliantly named Thomas B. Daft showed him a new product created by a friend of his, Perry saw its potential. What Daft had shown Perry was rubber that had undergone a treatment to stabilise it, making it possible to create rubber tubing. Perry immediately realised that thinly slicing a rubber tube would create stretchy rings perfect for holding together papers, and much easier than tying them together with string. No one else thought much of it but he went ahead to patent the idea.
The waterproofing qualities of rubber had been known for some years, with clothing manufacturer, Charles Macintosh, putting it to perfect use in raincoats, using latex sandwiched between layers of cloth. The problem was that natural rubber was inherently unstable – it would soften when warmed and harden when cold. Another clothing manufacturer called John Hancock was obsessed with solving this issue, as was an American called Charles Goodyear. And while it was Goodyear who came up with the process of mixing latex with sulphur and then heating it to create a stable product, it was Hancock who patented the very same thing, calling the process vulcanization, after the Roman God of fire. There ensued, naturally, a war of words between the two, but Goodyear seems to have won the day as it’s him who is now credited with its invention. A tyre company even honoured him by naming their company after him.
Perry’s friend, Daft, was also a friend of Hancock so the rubber band’s appearance was a case of knowing the right people. Rubber would become an important product by the end of the century, perfect for everything from tubing to tyres. The rubber band was useful in a number of applications, used in children’s toy aeroplanes, bunching unkempt hair, and helping create an airtight seal for jars and bottles. Less appealingly, it’s become a vital part in the castration of young livestock in a process now called elastration.
The rubber band is therefore so much more than a stationery item. It is, in its rubbery little way, a distillation of a much bigger story, from raincoats to racing car tyres, wrapping around a whole tale of global invention.