The birth of the humble rubber band

It was on this day, 17 March 1845, that the elastic rubber band, made from vulcanised rubber, was patented by it’s English inventor Stephen Perry. Around the same time, Jaroslav Kurash also independently came up with his version of the rubber band.

While this counts as the ‘invention of the modern rubber band’, it is by no means the first occurrence in history of these super-useful little binding tools. Many years before the Mayans had already used the sap from rubber trees to create elastic strands to bind things together.

The rubber band - another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.(© All Rights Reserved)
The rubber band – another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From their modern-day invention in 1845 it took almost 80 years before William Spencer first started mass producing rubber bands in Ohio, USA. And the rest, as they say, is history – it is nigh impossible to imagine a world without rubber bands.

Throughout history two types of rubber have been used to manufacture rubber bands – natural rubber or latex from rubber trees, and synthetic rubber, a by-product of crude oil refinement. Modern day rubber bands are basically created by extruding rubber into long tubes of varying colour, thickness and diameter. These elastic tubes are sliced into thin circles, creating rubber bands as we know them.

Very simply stated, rubber consists of chains of molecules bonded in such a way that the molecules can move, thus allowing the rubber to be stretched. The bonds between the molecules pull them back together again, causing rubber’s elasticity. Of course it is possible to stretch a rubber band too far, severing the bonds between the molecules, and causing the rubber band to snap. Over time, light and heat also weakens the chains of molecules, resulting in the bands to get brittle and more readily breakable.

Can you believe that the biggest rubber band ball (a ball created by wrapping rubber bands around each other ) was created by Joel Waul in 2008 in Florida, USA? It weighed a whopping 9400 pounds, exceeded 8 feet in height, and consisted of more than 700 000 rubber bands!?

Celebrating the invention of foam rubber

Today in 1929, British scientist EA Murphy, who worked at the Dunlop Latex Development Laboratories in Birmingham, must have been a little bored, or mischievous, because he decided to whip up some latex rubber with a kitchen mixer.  As is often the case with such seemingly arbitrary actions, he ended up inventing a product that, up to this day, has a huge impact in all our lives – foam rubber. It is said that Murphy’s colleagues were initially unimpressed, but this soon changed when they caught on to the amazing cushioning and shape retaining properties of this new invention, and it wasn’t long before foam rubber was used in motorcycle and car seats, mattresses and much more.

In its natural form, latex is a milky white liquid tapped from the trunks of rubber trees. This pure latex gets whipped up with water to create a thick froth. The froth is sometimes exaggerated using CO2 gas. Once frothy, the mixture is heated to the point of vulcanization (about 240°F) which results in the formation of long molecular chains with strong crosslinked bonds, giving the resultant foam rubber its ability to recover its shape after compression.

Close-up view of frothy foam rubber.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While the shape retention characteristics of foam rubber make it a very versatile substance, it does have some limitations. When it gets exposed to very high temperatures it will melt, and if its frozen it can shatter.

Now researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, have come up with a new carbon-based nanotube rubber that has even better shape memory than foam rubber, and that can withstand extreme temperatures without any negative effects.

The unique features of this new super-rubber make it ideally suited for use in extreme conditions like spacecraft and car shock absorbers. Incorporating it into clothing also means that you can have a truly non-wrinkle shirt. Perhaps most exciting is the electricity conducting abilities of the carbon nanotubes, which means that, if its used in shoes or shock absorbers, the material could theoretically harvest and store the electricity generated.

While high costs mean the large-scale application of these super-rubbers are still some way off, one can just imagine it becoming as pervasive as foam rubber over the next decades.