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The Synthetic Rubber Project

In 1942, U.S. rubber and tire companies, university research institutes, and government laboratories joined forces to produce synthetic rubber and to make and test tires for aircraft and vehicles from this material. This unique venture, which lasted until 1953, is documented in 8,000 technical reports describing meetings, research, technical processes, and tire tests. One complete set of this documentation is archived in TRS.

The Synthetic Rubber Program: A Brief History
TRS Collection
Further Reading

   The Synthetic Rubber Program: A Brief History

Dipping anti-vesicant synthetic rubber gloves,
Providence, R.I., ca. 1942.

When the United States entered World War II, the ability to manufacture synthetic rubber had existed for over two decades. Acting jointly, Standard Oil in the United States and IG Farben in Germany had acquired in the early 1920's patents related to the production of synthetic rubber and its products. This positioned the two countries to control further developments and markets, but Germany and the United States took much different paths. The Germans, preparing for war under government guidance and control, pursued the development of synthetic rubber, tires, fuels and lubricants relentlessly. In the U.S., Goodyear began research in synthetic rubber after it had acquired Zeppelin patents in 1924, and in 1933 synthetic rubber research became a full-time project at the company. Four years later, Goodyear built and tested the first American-made synthetic rubber tire. However, despite warnings that unless a substantial synthetic rubber industry was created, the American military would be left with cars, trucks, tanks, and aircraft without tires, the United States continued to rely on natural rubber supplies from Southeast Asia.

By the end of 1939, with the war in Europe already underway, the Americans counted only 125,800 tons of crude natural rubber in stock – substantially less than half the stocks available in the first five years of the decade. It was not until June 28, 1940 that Congress amended the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) Act to authorize the creation of corporations for the purpose of acquiring strategic and critical materials. Rubber was quickly placed on the “critical” list and the Rubber Reserve Company (RRC) created. Between December 7,1941 (Pearl Harbor) and February 3, 1942 (fall of Singapore) all available raw rubber in the Far East, amounting to 114,000 tons, was sent to the U.S. But as attacks on Allied shipping increased and supplies became limited to what could be grown primarily in South America, two new programs were designed by the RRC: The Scrap Rubber and the Idle Tire Projects. Citizens were asked to collect whatever rubber they could find and send the Government any unused tires in their possession. Greeted enthusiastically by the American people, the amounts of rubber collected gave the United States military some reprieve.

Paralleling these developments, representatives of the chemical, petroleum and rubber industries met with the National Defense Advisory Committee in August of 1940 to discuss establishing a synthetic rubber program. Company officials brought preliminary engineering plans to build commercial units capable of producing 100,000 tons annually. However, the following questions had to be resolved before production could take place:

1. What were the most satisfactory standards for synthetic rubber used for tires and tubes?
(Approximately seventy percent of the total annual rubber consumption in the U.S. was required just for tires and tubes).

2. What production processes should be employed?

3. Are the necessary raw materials readily available?

4. How much critical construction material was required for the producing plants, and how quickly could plant construction be completed?

5. What are the optimal sizes and locations for the producing plants?

Synthetic rubber fed to an automatic weighing machine, operated by United States Rubber Company at Institute, West Virginia, ca. 1945

With time running short, on March 26, 1942 industry representatives and the U.S. government agreed upon a common formula to produce synthetic rubber. Almost immediately, the RRC had U.S. Rubber (Uniroyal), Goodrich, Goodyear and Firestone design, build and manage government-owned facilities at their company locations. Goodyear for example built government synthetic rubber plants in Ohio, Texas and California. By the end of the war, the nation had spent as much money on its rubber program as it did on the atomic bomb. Following the war, the main plants owned by the Government but operated by industry were auctioned off (Goodyear purchased two of the plants in 1954) and the less important auxiliary plants (those that had supplied raw materials) were closed down.

In the aftermath, much was written and said about the success of the Synthetic Rubber Program - the reports issued by the Rubber Reserve Company for example praise the cooperation between industry and Government and the way a potential crisis was turned into a success story. But there were also severe critics. Robert A. Solo, a professor of economics at the City College of New York, argued in a study for the Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary that the program was a wasteful tug of war between the oil companies and non-technical Government officials.

TRS Collection

Several hardcopy reports series issued by the Program and focusing on the questions listed above (standards, production processes, raw materials, plant construction and size) were acquired by the Library of Congress. Also included was film produced by the Office of Technical Services. Both the hardcopy and film materials can be located thru the card catalog that was also sent to the Library containing about 58,000 index cards (arranged by subject, author, company, and decimal classification). Filmed were:

Copolymer Development Reports (CD), 3,392 documents, PB 126248 and PB 126248s

Copolymer Reports (CR) 3,962 documents, PB 118310 and PB 118310 sl,s2,s3.

Compilation of Abstracts (4 vols.) PB 111736 and PB 13 096

Apparently not filmed were the Government Tire Testing Reports containing photographs that would have been hard to film in 1957 because of the very thin cracks in the tire surfaces and the nuances in the tire profiles. Also not filmed were Copolymer Process Development Reports, Copolymer Equipment Development Reports, Reports of Meetings, Standards Development Reports, and some smaller record groups.

The hardcopy collection is in the custody of TRS. Most of the documents are in fairly good condition and have been placed into archival storage boxes to prevent further deterioration. The films, on 35 mm diazo substrate, are losing their images, making the documents illegible.

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   Further Reading:


Rubber, Artificial.
Artificial rubber industry.
Rubber industry and trade.
World War, 1939-1945--Equipment & supplies.

Sample Titles:

Babcock, Glenn D. History of the United States Rubber Company: a case study in corporation management. Bloomington: Bureau of Business Research, Graduate School of Business, Indiana University, 1966. 477 p.

Howard, Frank A. Buna rubber: the birth of an industry. New York: D. Van Nostrand company, inc., 1947.
307 p.

Chronological List of Technical Papers from the Government Synthetic Rubber Program. Washington, DC: Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Office of Synthetic Rubber, 1953.

Great Britain. British Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee. BIOS Surveys (synthetic rubber).

Herbert, Vernon and Attilio Bisio. Synthetic rubber : a project that had to succeed. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1985. 243 p.
LC CALL NUMBER: TS1925 .H47 1985

Morris, Peter John Turnbull. The American synthetic rubber research program. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, c1989. 191 p.
LC CALL NUMBER: TS1925 .M58 1989

Popple, Charles Sterling. Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) in World War II. New York: Standard Oil Co. (N.J.), 1952.
340 p.

Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The Government’s rubber projects: a history of the U. S. Government’s natural and synthetic rubber programs, 1941-1955. Washington, D.C.: 1955. 662 p.

Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Office of Synthetic Rubber. Abstracts of technical papers from Government Synthetic Rubber Programs. Washington: 1953-

  • Copolymer development reports. CD- (In TRS, PB-126248 includes some of these)
  • Copolymer reports. CR- (In TRS, PB-118310)
  • Indexes to Copolymer reports (TRS card indexes)

Rubber Reserve Company. Report on the Rubber Program, 1940-1945. Washington, DC, 1945.

Solo, Robert A. Synthetic Rubber: A Case Study in Technological Development Under Government Direction. Study of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-fifth Congress, Second Session, Pursuant to S. Res. 236. Study no. 18 of the Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1959.

Synthetic Rubber. Hearings Before a Special Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Serves, House of Representatives, Eighty-first Congress, Second Session, on the President’s Recommendations Concerning Synthetic Rubber. Hearings held February 20-27, 1950. No. 171. Washington, DC, 1950.
LC CALL NUMBER: HD9161.U52 A52 1950c

United States. Special Commission for Rubber Research. Recommended future role of the Federal Government with respect to research in synthetic rubber. Washington: 1955. 21 p.

Vernon Herbert and Attilio Bisio. Synthetic Rubber: A Project That Had to Succeed. Westport, CT, 1985.
LC CALL NUMBER: TS1925 .H47 1985

Whitby, G. Stafford, C.C. Davis and R.F. Dunbrook. Synthetic Rubber. New York: J. Wiley, 1954.

Online Sources:

Launching the Synthetic Rubber Industry. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Union Carbide Corporation Archives. Box 2: Union Carbide Corporation History: The Synthetic Rubber Program, Butadiene and Styrene. By Frank M. Branner, January 1996. West Virginia State Archives.

United States Synthetic Rubber Program, 1939-1945. National Historic Chemical Landmarks, American Chemical Society.

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United States Copyright restrictions prevent copying entire copyrighted documents. However, the fair use provision does permit reproduction of relevant portions (small parts) of these documents. Photocopiers, microform reader/printers and computer terminals are available for patron use in the Science Reading Room. TRS materials are non-circulating and are not to leave the Science Reading Room area.

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  June 18, 2009
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