Goodyear Story: An Inventor's Obsession and the Struggle for a Rubber Monopoly

Goodyear Story: An Inventor's Obsession and the Struggle for a Rubber Monopoly

by Richard Korman


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Goodyear Story: An Inventor's Obsession and the Struggle for a Rubber Monopoly by Richard Korman

Long before the Robber Barons made America into an international economic power, a generation of visionary inventors gambled on innovations they hoped would bring them riches. Chief among them was Charles Goodyear, who, in the 1830s, began his obsessive quest to find the recipe for rubber, a material he believed would change the world. In chasing his dream, Goodyear entered a Dickensian underworld, miring his family in poverty, spending extended periods in debtors' prison, and provoking powerful enemies who were also determined to understand and control this miracle substance. His victory in a triumphant lawsuit argued eloquently by Daniel Webster made Goodyear into an American industrial legend, but never released him from his tragic obsession and the pain it caused those close to him. In "The Goodyear Story," Richard Korman has written a fascinating biography that also provides a panoramic view of America in the first light of its industrial revolution. Drawing on newly discovered archival records, Korman tells a suspenseful story of scientific experimentation and legal struggle in creating a portrait of an eminent American whose eccentricity anticipates the new economy pioneers of today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781893554825
Publisher: Encounter Books
Publication date: 09/01/2003
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.72(h) x (d)

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Chapter One

Yankee Notions

In many accounts of post-revolutionary America, New England is pictured as a landscape of frugal farmer-mechanics, barnyard technicians who helped transform the United States from agricultural naif to economic juggernaut. What's missing from the conventional "drama of industrialization" is an entire cast of secondary characters who belong more to Dickens than de Tocqueville: farmers who combed rocky soil with ungainly iron plows; tradesmen starved for hard-to-find paper money or minted hard currency; laborers who became sick and fell behind on payments to shop owners and were dragged off to prison. It was a time when hardworking businessmen of humble birth could vault into the class of the newly wealthy, but could also take breathtaking falls.

    For most, unending toil won only subsistence, and a good many New Englanders simply left the land. Between 1790 and 1820, about 800,000 people emigrated from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The population of Boston stagnated as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore flourished.

    One bright spot following the Revolution was the return of ship-carried trade to the New England coast. With protection furnished by the tariff act of 1789, U.S. vessels regained control of the foreign goods entering American ports, especially spices from Asia. In New Haven, shipping entrepreneurs tried to reopen the contentious West Indian trade routes guarded by the French and English. But even here the human dramas often had ambiguous outcomes, as was shown by the locally famous experiencesof one Olney Burr. He had saved $800 and in 1801 became the master of a cargo sloop bound for the West Indies. On the voyage down he was captured by the French, who stole the cargo and condemned the ship. Burr lost all but $50. Back in New Haven, he sailed as master of another sloop; it arrived safely and netted him $1,800, which he used to buy the schooner Venus. But on the way back from the West Indies the Venus was cast away, and when the shipping company involved in the trip also failed, Burrs loss rose to $1,000. After that, Burr says he worked only as a common ship hand and sometimes a tanner and was "barely" able to support his wife and four small children. Creditors were "constantly threatening him with suits" and he was "daily liable to be confined in a prison." He petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly for bankruptcy as an insolvent debtor, saying he had "struggled with adversity" and done all he could to "satisfy his creditors and free himself from embarrassment." He listed debts of $1,284 owed to local merchants and investors. The largest was $500, the smallest $3. One debt of $64 was listed to Amasa Goodyear.

    A fifth-generation descendant of Stephen Goodyear, one of the founders of the New Haven colony and for a time its deputy governor, Amasa was a typical combination of farmer-artisan-storeowner, neither rich nor poor, shifting restlessly from venture to venture, seeking any advantage in a fast-changing regional economy. He spent an inordinate amount of time in his workshop, a boxy structure from whose walls hung serrated hay knives, adzes and hammers with black iron heads. Saws, scythes, planes and chisels dangled from the joists like sausages in a butcher shop. In winters Amasa shaped spiky nails over a fire nurtured with an accordion-like bellows. The shop was primitive by today's standards, but it was the place of the most sublime activity in Amasa's life. He honed scythes with graceful handles and hung the balance and weights of a crude twenty-four-hour clock. Making things silenced the murmurings of discontent caused by the exhausting repetitions of farm life. And "making things" was a regional fixation. Not far away, New Haven neighbor Eli Whitney had set up a system for assembling thousands of rifles for the federal government using a system of interchangeable parts. Rebounding from near-ruin from his stolen invention, the cotton gin, Whitney narrowed his focus and ignored his own wasting health to make his operations a success. As a result of examples like his, entrepreneurs all around New England reinvented the farmer's tool shop as a site for rapid production rather than handcrafted perfection. Fortunes were made and lost. More than most, the Goodyears would repeatedly climb into and fall out of the armchair of success.

    Amasa's wife, Cynthia, gave birth to a first child, Charles, on December 31, 1800, and two years later she had another boy, Robert. The family's early years revolved around the family farm on Oyster Point, a small peninsula jutting into Long Island Sound just southwest of New Haven. In 1805, Amasa bought an interest in a button-making patent from some brass-manufacturing entrepreneurs, and the Goodyears relocated twenty miles north to Salem, later called Naugatuck (just outside present-day Waterbury) to a farm along a tributary of the Naugatuck River. There Amasa could set up a shop and drive his machinery with water power.

    The town of Salem sat in a hill-framed valley cut by a shallow, rock-strewn riverbed. Farms had been cleared on the hillsides. A single dirt toll road running through the valley connected Salem with New Haven to the south; a tollgate and inn overlooked the river. A handful of prim buildings, widely spaced, made up the town center.

    In Salem, even more than New Haven, making things was a way of life. By the time the Goodyears had arrived, a fortune had already been secured by a foul-tempered individual by the name of Jared Byington, Salem's first manufacturer and the second Connecticut resident to receive a U.S. patent. Byington hired local boys at low rates to do his farm work, and used his nail-cutting and nail-heading machines and a staff of six, large for the time, to churn out nails by the hundreds. By 1801 he had done well enough to sell his blacksmith shop to new owners who used it for making buttons, the trade Amasa Goodyear took up.

* * *

Salem's increasingly freewheeling economic life reflected the resourcefulness of the people. After the Revolution, when the colonies were cut off from English trading privileges and lacked the cash to buy manufactured goods, Salemites would rely on a reservoir of mechanical skill that originated with the town's early blacksmiths and the saw, grist and corn mill operators on the river. And Salem's mechanically minded farmers, often more focused on their shops than their fields, turned out the needles, pins, buckles, combs, eyelets, pen knives, shears, mousetraps, forks, spoons, pans, kettles and clocks—"Yankee notions"—carried by peddlers to faraway consumers in every backwoods settlement.

    Versatile Amasa Goodyear made scythes and spoons and hoes and, for a period, clocks. He also understood the potential value of what a later time would call intellectual property, a right embedded in the U.S. Constitution since the 1790s in federal patent and copyright law. The first patent he took out was for his method of tempering round-tined table forks. Later, he patented an enclosed oil-burning lantern and, in 1810, a special spring steel hay fork.

    For a time, local farmers stubbornly scorned lightweight steel forks, believing the metal heads fixed to wooden stems would not hold up under heavy duty and sticking with the iron models even though these traditional forks were hefty and the brittle points were easily bent and battered. Eventually they had to admit that the steel fork was not only lighter, but its "spring" effect, the elastic ability of the forged steel prongs to give under the weight of a load of manure and hay without permanently deforming, made it more long-lasting. After initial resistance was overcome, the countryside around Salem seemed filled with Goodyear forks. "So completely has the article formerly used been superseded by this improvement, that the rising generation of farmers do not know what article their fathers were obliged to make use of," Charles Goodyear wrote later of his father's invention. The fork became part of a family foundation myth. In Charles' view, his father had emancipated the farm tool business from the "country blacksmiths" who exemplified the outworn past.

    When he became a button maker, Amasa invested in an existing patent filed by Henry Grilley of Waterbury, who in 1790 had coaxed the secret formula for casting and finishing pewter buttons from an English workman. Grilley eventually set up his button works on Fulling Mill Brook's south branch and proceeded to make buttons using the stolen method. Others took notice. In the shop on the Fulling Mill Brook, where his house and farm were located, Amasa made the first pearl buttons, and later, worked with a partner to produce bright metal buttons. These were a mixture of copper, tin and other material poured into molds. A lathe was used to polish the buttons to the bright finish required by tailors for swallowtail coats.

    The Goodyear children, now including a daughter, Harriet, born in 1805, and a son, Henry, born in 1807, attended local grade schools, which were in essence parochial schools of the Congregational Church. They learned to read and write, and they learned the basics of geography, math and economics. As part of their arithmetic lessons, they probably calculated payments for socks and horses and wagon wheels. Above all, they studied Scripture and submitted their thoughts on it to the stern interpretation favored by their elders.

    The Salem Congregationalists had authority over every aspect of members' lives and to a large extent over the civil affairs of the town. Salem clung to a comparatively strict Calvinism that was already fading in other Congregational churches. Quarrels were meant to be settled by the brethren, not the courts. Marital discord and adulterous fornication also fell within church jurisdiction. The church's moral sanctimony required the brethren to form a committee to combat the "unchristian walk" followed by some women in town. Even contact with members of other churches was limited until the brethren had ascertained their impeccable Christian character. According to the church's 1783 Confessions of Faith, the congregation agreed to prohibit "occasional Communion with Persons recommended from other Churches for a longer Term than twelve Months if they do not within this Term give us satisfaction with regard to their soundness in the faith." Although a faithful member of the congregation, Amasa Goodyear was not as strict as some of his fellow parishioners, causing some comment later on when he showed little sympathy for the violent attacks made on Roman Catholics.

    His eldest child, Charles, was like any other boy thirsting for fun and new experiences in the small, well-ordered world of Salem. And like his friends he was intrigued by glimpses of other worlds with which he had no firsthand contact. Strangers came and went from the Collins Tavern and Hotel in Straitsville, about a mile from the center of Salem. It had a taproom and four big ovens, and the proprietor, Ahira Collins, showing a taste for the grandiose, put up a sign that said Collins Hotel, rather than inn or tavern. Across the street was a bowling alley and later a store. After school was over for the day, Charles and his brothers and schoolmates hurried down the hill from the schoolhouse to Chauncey Lewis's tavern and stage way-stop, and if they were lucky, they would get there in time to see the stagecoach pull up to the tavern and discharge its passengers. After the horses had been watered, the driver would return the way he had come, splashing through the river shallows to get back to the dirt turnpike.

* * *

When it came time to cultivate their son's intellectual and spiritual development, the Goodyears sent twelve-year-old Charles off to Ellsworth, in Litchfield County, to attend a school run by the Reverend Daniel Parker, a Congregationalist minister whose pedagogy drew children from as far away as Buffalo and Boston. At one time enrollment in the school numbered two hundred. Parker's energetic preaching won acclaim, and it energized Charles. For the first time he read and discussed the Book of Job, a story of torment and faith that would fascinate him later on as his own life became a chronicle of tribulations.

    Since his arrival in 180o2, Parker believed the congregation and townspeople had exploited him. He complained that the congregation paid him inadequately and forced him to pay for school construction, make loans at below-market interest rates to needy congregants and pay the tuition of an orphaned boy. Adding to Parker's burdens, the Holy Spirit suddenly arrived in Litchfield County and a great many new congregants crowded the benches. "This shower of divine grace spread over the parish, and its effects were deep and pungent," Parker wrote. "It was evidently the still small voice which caused multitudes to exclaim with deep solicitude, 'What shall we do to be saved?'"

    This great awakening led a congregant with a background in education to open a competing school, a treachery that stunned and enraged Parker. The tangled relationship between town and minister grew even more complex when a local woman who became drunk at Parker's home was excommunicated for her sin. And finally, some leading congregants complained that an orphaned boy whose tuition Parker had paid was seen around town behaving a bit too gaily and dressed in clothes with an inappropriate amount of color and dash. By now, Parker's joint business ventures with the locals were going sour, too. He asked to be dismissed and was granted his wish. The brethren included a phrase in Parker's letter of dismissal that said he was too much involved in "worldly matters." The comment stung Parker so deeply he sued for slander.

    Charles returned home from this drama of overwork, debt and betrayal just as the Goodyear family's button business began to decline. So far none of Amasa's product lines, except for the spring steel hay and manure fork, had achieved more than temporary successes. The high point of Amasa's button business seems to have been the War of 1812, which hurt the New England economy generally but brought him a military contract for uniform buttons. It isn't clear when or why his button works shut down, but when it did he opened a store at the town center. Eventually he shut down operations at this location, too, and set up a small shop in the village center where he made forks, buttons and molasses gates, a device for regulating the flow of the slow-moving syrup. By now, he and Cynthia had new children to care for with the birth of Nelson in 1813 and Amasa Jr. soon after.

    As the oldest, Charles became accustomed to serving as a surrogate parent for his brothers and sister. He also asserted himself confidently in dealings with his father, who lacked some of the worldly knowledge and the never-ending stream of new ideas his son seemed to possess. In many ways, Amasa remained a simple farmer and blacksmith who patiently sought and followed the boy's suggestions. In the Goodyear role reversal, the teenage son offered as much guidance as his father about the future of the family business.

    Still, Charles needed a mentor who would not yield to him as easily as his father did. He resumed his studies at home with the occasional help of a tutor named William C. DeForest. A tall, broad young man, red-faced and energetic, DeForest took a special interest in his short, slim protégé. DeForest found Goodyear ridiculous, boastful and unrealistic, but he also was delighted in the boy's precocity and the way he easily mastered his lessons and had so much to say about the world around him. Of the two, Goodyear had a far more active imagination and the ability to articulate his ideas with passion and humor and wordplay. But in one respect he saw DeForest as a role model. Although just twenty, his tutor was already a partner in a textile business in Naugatuck.


Excerpted from THE GOODYEAR STORY by Richard Korman. Copyright © 2002 by Richard Korman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Upstart Americans1
Chapter 1Yankee Notions8
Chapter 2Salvation through Rubber24
Chapter 3The Scent of Brimstone39
Chapter 4The Remarkable Providence56
Chapter 5Patent No. 363382
Chapter 6"Do you think you are a scoundrel?"94
Chapter 7A Capacious Monopoly113
Chapter 8A Trial for the Century125
Chapter 9"I cannot censure myself"164
Epilogue: "Grandfather's life was faithful, just and righteous"187
Author's Note205
Source Notes209

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