Rubber makes history:Part I-2: The conflict about the rubber monopoly

The two main rubber producers, Great Britain and the Netherlands, suffered from steadily falling rubber prices. Even though the First World War (1914 – 1918) made sure that business was good for the Asian plantations, because strong demand for rubber needed to be satisfied: “The American car industry consumed nine million tyres in the year the war began, 18 million in 1916 and 30 million in the year the war ended.” (Fischer 1938, 131) All the manufacturers increased their production and even supplied the market with considerably more rubber than it required – rubber warehouses were completely full and the price dropped: “Rubber was the only raw material that increased in price from 1914 to 1915 under the gloomy threat of the uncertain outcome of the war [...], but then dropped steadily in price once people had recovered from their initial panic to become exactly as cheap at about 5 marks per kilogram in the third year of the war as it had been in the years of the last rubber crisis.” (Fischer 1938, 127)

The acreage devoted to rubber plantations in Asia increased more and more even so (see Table 5 and Jünger 1942, 118) – in expectation of soaring demand when peace returned:

“The war would have had to last until at least 1924 if the huge new plantations were supposed to continue fuelling the war economy. Production on the existing plantations alone grew from year to year during the war, however. 200,000 tonnes in 1916 became 265,000 tonnes in the penultimate year of the war and rose to 300,000 tonnes in the final year of the war. Rubber traders were extremely worried about future developments, because they were left with 80,000 tonnes in the final year of the Great War. What would happen when the enormous new plantations could be harvested too in a few years? But would world demand for rubber not explode after the war? Wouldn’t the countries that were currently enemies and that had been cut off completely from all the different rubber sources by the war fight tooth and nail for any rubber they could obtain? Would it not perhaps be tremendously lucrative to be stuck with 80,000 tonnes now that it would then be possible to sell for very different prices from the 5 marks per kilo that were being paid now?” (Fischer 1938, 128 – 129)

 
 

Catastrophic price slump

The opposite happened, however: “The consequence of the [...] increase in production made by the British growers was that 326,000 tonnes of rubber came onto the market (in 1918, editor’s note), [...] whereas the world was only willing to buy 230,000 tonnes from the traders, so that stocks increased to 265,000 tonnes, which was more than the world was able to absorb in one year. Production was an entire year ahead of consumption.” (Fischer 1938, 131; cf. Jünger 1942, 118 – 119) The surplus was aggravated by a sales slump and an economic downturn: “Europe – Germany and its former allies in particular – did not have any money to buy cars and thus rubber. The European car industry lost all of the significant position it had held before the war.” (Fischer 1938, 133) Prices slumped catastrophically as a result: “In the initial post-war years, the average price of a kilogram of rubber was 1.80 marks – due to the difference in prices [...] traders lost more than 1.1 billion marks on their rubber stocks alone.” (Fischer 1938, 132; cf. ibid., 164 – 165, and Jünger 1942, 118 – 119) And the rubber price was to “drop” even further “to a low of 1.50 marks per kilogram, a level considered completely impossible beforehand” (Fischer 1938, 136; see also Table 4).

Table 5:
Rubber acreage in South Asia

Year | Total area (in ‘000 acres; 1 acre = 0.4047 hectare))
1905 | 135
1910 | 1,150
1915 | 2,520
1920 | 4,315
1925 | 5,280
1930 | 7,700
1935 | 8,420
(Source: Jünger 1942, 203)

 
 

Throughout the Asian colonies, rubber was harvested where tea or rice had been grown before. In the early stages, rubber had generated record revenues, but now it “did not by a long way even cover the costs incurred by the plantations added needlessly during the war” (Fischer 1938, 134) – if it was possible to sell the rubber at all. Many rubber tappers were laid off without any compensation and the local population fell into poverty: “The luxurious country houses of the Chinese, Malays and Indians went to ruin. [...] The native people, who had been the proud owners of the latest Parisian fashion and the newest American cars one or two years earlier were soon suffering tremendous hardship.” (Fischer 1938, 134; cf. ibid., 140, and Jünger 1942, 126)

British opt for restriction
What countermeasures was Great Britain able to take in its role as a colonial power? The British Empire itself was in a position to make use of a maximum of 20 per cent of rubber production, particularly since the domestic car industry, which was a shadow of its former self, was not large enough to be a major consumer (cf. Fischer 1938, 136). Due to the lack of viable ways to stimulate rubber consumption, the only option was to cut production in order to bring supply and demand back closer together again and to increase prices as a result:

“A long time before, the biggest rubber producers in the world had joined forces to form a trust, the Rubber Growers Association, which had seen the danger of excess production coming as early as 1917 and had already demanded of its members back then that they should only produce four fifths of their existing volume in 1918 – in spite of all the needs of the war economy. Obsessed by the profits the war promised – which had not been generated yet but which they thought they could expect – the growers had no intention of following the commands issued by their organisation, however, so that the volume of rubber that came onto the Western market did not decrease until 1920, almost two years after the end of the war, when the same organisation, which now represented almost 100 per cent of all the rubber growers in Asia, issued the even stricter instruction that producers now had to keep a further 25 per cent of the previous year’s crop in stock instead of increasing the stocks of the major European and American middlemen, and when the growers discovered that it was impossible to find any buyers, no matter how hard they tried. [...] The rubber growers in the Far East, both the natives and the Europeans, [...] followed the instructions issued by their organisation this time and global production dropped from 370,000 to 282,000 tonnes. World consumption decreased to 265,000 tonnes in this year, [...] however, so that traders were again left with 20,000 tonnes of [...] unsold rubber.” (Fischer 1938, 136 – 137)

As long as demand was even lower than the reduced supply, plantation rubber trading involved the risk of losses. It was therefore necessary to develop alternative strategies to revive the rubber business. For this purpose, the British Colonial Secretary and later Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) set up a commission under the chairmanship of James Stevenson (1873 – 1926); see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stevenson,_1st_Baron_Stevenson), “which was instructed to review the entire market situation with respect to production, consumption and accumulated stocks and to propose effective countermeasures” (Jünger 1942, 120; see also Zischka 1936, 162). The objective stipulated was “stabilisation of rubber prices” (Jünger 1942, 141) by “supporting the price” of rubber – in other words: making rubber more expensive by reducing supply even more. It was the assignment of the Stevenson Commission to discuss and decide what measures appeared to be appropriate to reach this objective. The members of the commission finally opted for restriction of both the production and export volume, with binding maximum quotas. On 1. November 1922, “a law [therefore] came into force for Malaya and Ceylon [...] that was soon to become known as the ‘Stevenson Restriction Act’. All British growers agreed voluntarily to observe the provisions of this Act. At the official level, it had no connection to the British government; it was merely recommended to the growers by the Colonial Office. [...] The volume produced between 1. November 1919 and 31. October 1920 was assumed to be normal production for each plantation. The growers were allowed to export 60% of production on average.” (Jünger 1942, 123)

 
 

The “Stevenson Restriction Act” proved to be the turning point, although it was dogged by constant problems right from the start that hampered achievement of its goals:

• It turned out to be impossible to involve the rubber growers in the Dutch East Indies and thus “to cover all the Asian production regions” (Jünger 1942, 120): “The Dutch government refused to [...] adopt the Stevenson plan” (Fischer 1938, 139). This meant that the British restriction plan had no impact on “almost one third of all the plantation rubber around the world” (Fischer 1938, 139). “The commission did, however, succeed in persuading the English growers in the Dutch East Indies, who controlled about 30% of production there, to accept the restriction.” (Jünger 1942, 123)
• It was only possible to determine and control the volume of rubber destined for export to an unsatisfactory extent: “The authorities were forced to believe the statements made by the growers, who [...] reported inaccurate figures in spite of the threat of punishment. It was not unusual for export licences to be granted to growers who had left their plantations long ago and for these licences to be traded eagerly. While large amounts of rubber already evaded the restriction in this way, the numerous forgeries of unloading certificates had what can only be described as catastrophic effects. Strict measures taken by the commission only succeeded in reducing but not eliminating these scams.” (Jünger 1942, 126)
• Gangs smuggled rubber from Malaya to Sumatra, i.e. from British to Dutch territory, via the Strait of Malacca, where it was not as a result subject to the restriction. “It was estimated that the amount involved in 1927 was 16,000 tonnes. [...] The British government was forced to deploy an entire flotilla of fast-moving customs cutters to combat this problem. In the extensive river network, they were only able to achieve minimal success against the gangs of smugglers, who acted at night and knew the area inside out” (Jünger 1942, 126 – 127)

The “Stevenson Restriction Act” soon produced results in spite of all the difficulties: “The value of rubber increased from 275 marks per 100 kilograms to 400 marks in 1923 and subsequently stabilised at 550 marks. The Stevenson plan did not take full effect until 1924 and 1925, however.” (Jünger 1942, 123 – 124) In Fischer 1938, 167, it says: “The restriction on rubber in the British colonies made the raw material and products hundreds of millions of dollars and marks more expensive for the European and American rubber factories.” There was another reason for the success, however, because it was attributable not only to the restriction on rubber production and export but also and to at least the same extent to a sudden boom in demand again: “When the restriction on rubber production began, most of the stocks from the war and initial post-war years had been exhausted and consumption was a little higher than production every year from 1923 onwards. The annual production of cars in the United States grew from about ten million in 1921 to about 15 in 1924, while 50 million tyres were needed in 1924, almost twice as many as in 1921.” (Fischer 1938, 140) Demand was also increased substantially by the rising popularity of shoes with crepe soles and the construction of roads with rubber surfacing.
(Jünger 1942, 124).

 
 

The Netherlands benefit

Prosperity returned to the “rubber regions ( ) of the Far East [...]. The monotony of life in the little colonial towns was transformed overnight. In the same way that European opera ensembles went to Mana(u)s and Par(à) 20 years before, European [...] dancers [...] were now attracted to Sumatra, Borneo and Malacca by huge fees, champagne flowed abundantly – like it had before in the Amazon and Putumayo rainforests – roads were built for cars, [...] and suddenly masses of luxury cars started to appear” (Fischer 1938, 141). The Dutch, who had refused to join the British in complying with the “Stevenson Restriction Act”, benefitted too (Zischka 1936, 164) and planted new Hevea forests all over Java and Sumatra in the hope of enjoying large profits – as soon as they were ready to supply latex, there was, however, the danger of renewed overproduction and the drop in prices associated with this (cf. Zischka 1936, 164, and Fischer 1938, 167). For the time being, however, the motto was: “The nightmare of the years after the world war was forgotten; the Stevenson plan had worked.” (Jünger 1942, 125)

 
 

While the rubber suppliers rejoiced, consumers were upset about the profiteering (“price support policy”) attributable to Stevenson. As the main consumers, the car manufacturers in the USA had to be pay most of the bill (see Table 6): “Due to the immense growth of the car industry, the United States processed more than three quarters of the entire world’s rubber production (Jünger 1942, 127) and was forced to accept the prices dictated by Great Britain, which “controlled four fifths of rubber production but had a use for not even one fifth of total production” – a “terrific anomaly” (Fischer 1938, 138 – 139) that was “tremendously unfair” (ibid., 145). The political and business communities in the USA “were ready to take strong action” (Jünger 1942, 127) and declared war on the rubber monopoly dominated by the British:

• The spokesman for the opposition was Herbert Hoover (1874 – 1964), US Secretary of Commerce and, later, US President (1929 – 1933), whose verbal attacks made him “one of the most-hated people” in Great Britain (Jünger 1942, 127). What Hoover swept under the carpet – it is reported – is the fact that the explosion of tyre prices “was attributable as much to the American manufacturers as it was to the English restriction [...]. As is revealed in the [...] statements made in Congress by the Democratic Representative Ashton Shallenberger (1862 – 1938, editor’s note), the American tyre companies used English control as an excuse to double tyre prices on occasions.” (Jünger 1942, 130) Shallenberger: “It was only the fact that the foreign manufacturers brought 100% of their standard production onto the market that saved Americans from being subjected to 20 or 25% higher prices by the American manufacturers.” (quoted from Jünger 1942, 131)
• “In July 1925, the United States Ambassador in London (= Alanson Bigelow Houghton, 1863 – 1941; editor’s note) protested to the British government about the application of this system. England did not even make an effort to submit a serious response to this protest. In a brief memo, reference was made to the fact that the Stevenson plan was action taken by the growers to help themselves and had no connection of any kind to the British government. In public, the latter argued that the plan [...] in essence did not differ at all from what American cotton and grain producers aimed to achieve by restricting the production and increasing prices on the English market.” (Jünger 1942, 129) It was claimed that the restriction policy did not by any means have unilateral impact either; it affected English industry just as much as industry in the United States or other countries.
• Henry Stuart Hotchkiss (1878-1947), Vice President of the United States Rubber Company (see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”) held a personal meeting with Winston Churchill in London to negotiate the rubber price, but obtained no concessions from the British Colonial Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer: “Some bitterness remained after the meeting. The Americans were very aware of what a leading English politician (according to Jünger 1942, 141 Churchill himself!; editor’s note) had said, that ‘Great Britain will pay its war debt to America with rubber’, and Winston Churchill [...] had not forgotten that the war had made the United States rich – a war in which England had lost not only its best sons but also a huge proportion of its wealth. The Americans returned home empty-handed, while [...] Churchill intensified the battle against low rubber prices” (Fischer 1938, 144 – 145; see also Zischka 1936, 161 – 162).

 
 

Table 6
Raw rubber consumption in the most important import countries (figures in tonnes)

1910 |1920 | 1925 |1930 | 1935 | 1938
USA | 32,000 | 240,000 | 390,000 | 370,000 | 490.000 | 412.000t
GB | 18,000 | 25,000 | 31,000 | 70,000  | 90,000 | 98,000 t
D | 14,000 | 13,000 | 34,000 | 45,000 | 60,000 | 104,000 t
F | 3,500 | 15,000 | 35,000 | 70,000 | 54,000 | 58,000 t
RUS | 7,000 | 1,000 | 6,000 | 15,000 | 40,000 | 44,000 t
JAP | 700 | 6,000 | 12,000 | 30,000 | 55,000 | 60,000 t
(Quelle: Jünger 1942, 202)

 
 

Since it was not possible to reach agreement with the British themselves, the United States tried to find other ways to eliminate their dependency:

• American consumers adhered to “the 23 per cent of world rubber production that England did not control at the time, that grew in non-British territories, which left the Dutch East Indies” (Zischka 1936, 162). The biggest US companies stocked up by buying from the growers there that were not subject to any export restrictions, “in order, if necessary, to be in a position to correct the market by flooding it with rubber if and as soon as the prices dictated by the British became too outrageous” (Fischer 1938, 139). “Only a year after it was formed, this rubber pool – which was established in great secrecy – already had more than 40,000 tonnes of rubber.” (Jünger 1942, 134) However, the raw rubber from the Dutch East Indies was not enough to cover the growing American requirements. (Zischka 1936, 164)
• With the motto “Use less rubber”, the US government and business associations encouraged people to more economical in their consumption of rubber products, particularly car tyres, so that less rubber needed to be processed and/or imported: “Tyres were repaired until they were so worn out that they could not be used any longer. [...] In the first year of the campaign, buying new tyres was avoided by using spare tyres, while inner tubes were not considered worn out until there was no more space on them for patches. In addition to this, the government focussed on maximum tyre protection when building roads, so that tyres lasted four times as long on some new model roads. In the 1925/26 financial year, the outcome of all these measures was that 18% fewer tyres and 23% fewer inner tubes were consumed than in the previous year, even though the number of cars on the road increased by more than two million over the same period.” (Jünger 1942, 132 – 133; cf. Fischer 1938, 146) Jünger 1942, 131 cannot resist taking an anti-American shot at these collective efforts: “Anyone who is familiar at least to some extent with the character of the North Americans – their willingness [...] to follow the crowd, their lack of individuality and their distinct tendency to copy others – will realise that nothing is easier in this country than mobilising the masses.”
• Industry was supposed to save rubber too – without having to produce fewer tyres for this reason. The magic words were “regenerated rubber”: “Goodyear had already obtained a patent about the reprocessing of rubber products that were no longer good enough to be used any more. This ‘regenerated rubber’, as it was called, could be used for practically anything for which raw rubber was needed. At normal times, car tyres – which are subject to extremely high stresses – contained little regenerated material, however, because their resistance properties were adversely effected if too much was included.” (Jünger 1942, 133, footnote 1) The situation after the Great War was definitely not considered “normal”, however. The consequence: “Even the highest-quality tyres contained 25% regenerated, recovered rubber.” (Jünger 1942, 133) There was a steady increase in the amount of regenerated rubber used as a result. 40,000 tonnes were produced in 1921, 200,000 tonnes in 1927 and the percentage of total raw rubber imports into the United States accounted for by regenerated rubber jumped from 19 to 47.7 per cent. Raw rubber consumption in the United States increased even so, but – and this was the important point – it increased less than car production and the total number of cars on the road (see Fischer 1938, 146).

 
 

From Guayule to dandelion

The conclusion drawn by Jünger 1942, 135, is that all the attempts made “to relieve the pressure of the arbitrarily set English rubber prices” were, however, thwarted by “the steady increase in production by the motor vehicle industry. In these circumstances, the Americans felt that they were in the same situation with the English as the English once were with Brazil. It therefore stood to reason that they would opt for the same solution that Great Britain had chosen to change the situation in its favour”, i.e. to produce rubber themselves. In view of the fact that suitable conditions for growing the Hevea brasiliensis were nowhere to be found in the United States, a start had already been made years before the “Stevenson Restriction Act” on looking for other potential rubber suppliers. These efforts were now redoubled:

• The “Continental Rubber Company” invested in the Mexican Guayule shrub, “a plant in which rubber was supposed to be present not in the form of latex but as a solid substance and could allegedly be obtained in a grinding and washing process. About 8,000 tonnes of this rubber were actually produced in 1910, but they proved to be practically impossible to process on an industrial scale.” (Fischer 1938, 159)
• In 1925, Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – 1931), the inventor of the light bulb, established the “Edison Botanic Research Corporation”, in order “to find an equivalent substitute for rubber from the sap of domestic plants” (Jünger 1942, 136): “After two years, thousands of plants had been investigated in the laboratories in New Jersey and Florida. Several hundred of them were cultivated for trial purposes on fields in the southern states of the Union, but only one of them succeeded in satisfying the requirements made in the final stage of the challenging investigation. It was the American weed Golden Rod, a variation of which – the Golden Rod Gigantica – had been grown in Fort Myers. Although the sap of this plant contained plenty of a rubber-like substance, it soon became clear that it was not suitable for practical use. It lacked not only the elasticity but also the consistent strength that was essential for the production of car tyres. [...] Edison died without having found a new American rubber” (Jünger 1942, 137 – 138; cf. Zischka 1936, 169, and Klemm 1960, 51) – Incidentally: the tyre manufacturer Continental is currently co-operating with scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute to develop a natural rubber substitute as the source material for “green” car tyres from a subspecies of Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz). The weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” commented tongue-in-cheek: “The tyre manufacturers in Western Europe would therefore be well-advised to stock up on dandelion seeds before the Russian President Vladimir Putin imposes a ban on dandelion exports – in retaliation for western sanctions in connection with the crisis in the Crimea.” (Lamparter 2014, 23)
• All the research confirmed that the Hevea brasiliensis was the only option to obtain rubber. In order to cultivate this tree, the United States resorted to foreign land in the equatorial zone. As long ago as shortly after the end of the World War, “American companies had acquired more than 80,000 hectares of land in the Dutch East Indies in the course of only a few years. As soon as the Dutch government realised what was happening, buying rubber plantations and acquiring land that was suitable for the creation of such plantations was made so difficult that it proved impossible for Americans to obtain possession of them.” (Jünger 1942, 135; cf. ibid., 119) Now, in the battle against the “Stevenson Restriction Act”, the US Congress approved the spending of the equivalent of two million marks in order “to have the potential for growing rubber in the Philippines and Latin America investigated” (Fischer 1938, 143). Scouts from Akron, the “tyre centre of the world” (see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”), reported from the Amazon that the country was “eminently suitable for rubber plantations, while perhaps 300 million rubber trees were still standing on the 60,000 kilometre-long banks of the Amazon river basin, only about 20 million of which were tapped during the “red rubber” era; the transport conditions were not bad either. [...] It would not be possible to solve the worker problem, however. The Indios in the Amazon basin still shook with horror when they heard the word ‘rubber’; they had not forgotten what happened to them and their peoples 20 years ago. The major rubber manufacturers from the United States decided against planting Hevea trees in the country in which the soil was once fertilised with blood.” (Fischer 1938, 144) Only Henry Ford (1863 – 1947), the car magnate from Detroit, made an attempt – and failed with his huge plantation on the Rio Tapajós river, deep in the Brazilian rainforest. The “tyre king” Harvey Samuel Firestone (1868 – 1938) was to have greater success in Africa, although he was unable to weaken the rubber monopoly to any serious extent (one of the next articles in our series will be reporting in detail about Ford and Firestone).

 
 

Rubber was and still remained a monopoly of the equatorial zone – and thus a bone of international contention. A “war” in which “pistols and whips” had been replaced by “the less bloody strategy adopted by the business community” (Fischer 1938, 139), but in which large losses were still being suffered and in which there were in the final analysis no winners. Great Britain’s dominance of the rubber market dwindled; “due to the Dutch and French, England’s share of world production fell from 77 per cent in 1922 to 53 per cent in 1927” (Fischer 1938, 168). On 1. November 1928, the British “dropped the entire Stevenson plan” (Jünger 1942, 180) and blamed the Dutch for the “failure of the restriction scheme [...]. During the restriction years, Holland really had sold its entire harvest to America for good prices and had in addition extended its plantations to the greatest possible extent.” (Jünger 1942, 180) In a speech in the House of Commons, the British Colonial Secretary Leopold S. Amery (1873 – 1955, editor’s note) concluded that “our main competitors have made [...] rapid progress in their production operations, while we have been running on the spot” (quoted from Jünger 1942, 181). Much too much rubber was soon being produced again once the Stevenson plan was abandoned: “800,000 tonnes were produced in 1931, when only 676,000 tonnes were consumed. Stocks amounted to 645,000 tonnes in May 1932.” (Jünger 1942, 181 – 182) On top of this, there was a slump in demand due to the Great Depression – prices plummeted disastrously to 32 pfennigs per kilo. It goes without saying that this ruined business for all rubber suppliers – the rubber growers and traders not only in the British colonies but also in the Dutch colonies:

“Almost 30% of the rubber plantations in the Dutch East Indies were not tapped any longer in 1932. Many growers found themselves unable to pay their taxes, so that their plantations became subject to liens and ownership of them passed to the state. In this desolate situation, rebellious elements in the Dutch colonies stirred up hatred among the native population and revolutionary movements soon formed, which caused panic of sorts in Holland after a mutiny and the seizure of the warship ‘De Zeven Provinci(ë)n”. In these difficult circumstances, they on several occasions offered the English negotiations about a new restriction plan, which – in view of Holland’s conduct in connection with the Stevenson plan – the English rejected out of hand. Although private discussions were held between London and The Hague in March 1932, England made sure they proved to be a failure.” (Jünger 1942, 182)

Although there was a balance between global production and global consumption again as early as 1933, the British unexpectedly responded positively to Holland’s restrictions plans after all. On 7. May 1934, “the governments of the main rubber-growing countries came to London for a meeting.” (Helbig 1949, 263) “On 1. (June, editor’s note) 1934 [...], an agreement was reached, according to which the countries that signed it subjected themselves to export restrictions until 31. December 1938.” (Jünger 1942, 182) In addition to this, “there was now a ban on extension of the plantations not only in the English colonies but also in the Dutch colonies, while the replacement of old trees by new trees was limited to one fifth of the total stands.” (Zischka 1936, 169) All the members of this international rubber cartel were countries and/or colonies in South and South-East Asia, which accounted for 97 per cent of world production; “The Dutch East Indies received the second-highest quota after (British) Malaya.” (Helbig 1949, 264) “Global consumption reached nearly one million tonnes in 1936. After the new restriction came into force, the value of 100 kilograms (of rubber, editor’s note) increased from 59 marks in 1934 to 95 marks in 1937.” (Jünger 1942, 182 – 183) But no matter how effectively fine-tuned the restriction scheme was, every recession in the US economy wrought havoc with planned profits and led to new countermeasures.

 
 

The end of the rubber monopoly

Zischka 1936, 168-169, sums the situation up as follows: “If anything, there was too much rubber rather than too little. But it was distributed so inconsistently. [...] It was inevitable that this regularly led to conflicts.” The Asian rubber monopoly did not falter, however – until science came along and invented synthetic rubber. Initial attempts at this were made as early as the end of the 19th century by French and German chemists, who were originally trying to understand the nature of rubber and its molecular structure. The efforts made primarily in Germany later on focussed on finding a viable substitute for rubber: “With no tropical colonies and exports from them, German scientists developed a tendency to create autonomous solutions that were to have major impact on the world markets, e.g. with nitrates, colouring agents like cochineal (carmine) or indigo, rubber or sugar. This was not just attributable to a talent for chemistry, to highly advanced laboratories or to excellent universities but also to necessity dictated by the global economy.” (Topik/Wells 2012, 765)

Fritz Hofmann (1866-1956) from Elberfelder Farbenfabriken succeeded in producing the basic component of rubber, isoprene, synthetically and polymerising it successfully, so that synthetic rubber was produced (see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”). He was granted the Imperial Patent No. 250 690 for this on 12. September 1909. When the First World War cut Germany off from the world market, industry was suddenly dependent on synthetic rubber, with which the only experience gained to date had been at the laboratory level. A switch was made from isoprene to dimethyl butadiene and methyl rubber was produced, which was, however, of such inferior quality that production of it was discontinued again after 1918. The chemists Walter Bock and Eduard Tschunkur developed high-quality Buna in Leverkusen in 1927 (a separate article will be devoted to Buna in the course of this series). Buna, a synthetic rubber made from butadiene as the basic component with sodium to facilitate polymerisation, was processed into synthetic rubber on an industrial scale in Germany from about 1930 onwards (Fischer 1938, 170). In the same year, the chemists Wallace Hume Carothers (1896 – 1937) and Arnold Collins from the DuPont-de-Nemours Group in Wilmington / Delaware / USA obtained chloroprene – which is related to isoprene – from sodium chloride. Synthetic rubber (trade names: Duprene, Neopren) was polymerised and vulcanised from this. Although such successes were impressive, these were bad times for synthetic rubber, because the original product made from plant sources was too inexpensive. The “International Rubber Committee” therefore expressed the “view that Buna was not profitable enough for export purposes for the time being and was not therefore in a position to have an impact on global trade. The price of synthetic rubber [...] ranged between 4 and 5 marks per kilogram, whereas plantation rubber could if necessary be brought onto the market for less than 60 pfennigs.” (Jünger 1942, 195; cf. Fischer 1938, 172 – 173) It was also much more expensive to operate an industrial plant than to run a plantation, not least of all in view of the wages that had to be paid – in one case for skilled workers compared in the other case with “cheap coolies”.

Fischer 1938, 174 raises an objection: “What a relative matter the price is. The price of our raw material fluctuated by thousands of per cent during the periods of “red rubber” and plantation rubber. What was the point therefore of [...] racking one’s brains about the future price of ‘Buna’?” An additional factor was: “The production of synthetic rubber can be [...] regulated far more easily than production on huge plantations, which are there and want to have at least their costs covered.” (Fischer 1938, 176) The debate about prices was one-sidedly materialistic too, says Fischer 1938, 174 – 175, criticising capitalism in the way he usually does: “In the same way that the first tonne of plantation rubber already amounted to a victory over red rubber, the very first Buna tyre represented a triumph of morality and reason over speculative business practices, a triumph of the spirit over money and the stock market.” In ibid., 176, there is talk of a “victory of the mind and technology over the harshness and brutality with which the ‘free’ economy was once allowed to exploit nature and humankind”. The argument that price was not everything could, however, be presented without any ideological zeal – by emphasising the quality aspect. “Industry” was able to point out to the International Rubber Committee “that it was in a position to continue the battle on the basis of higher quality. Synthetic products were already so superior to the natural product for a number of special applications that they could be considered dominant in these areas. However, the world market position of plantation rubber could not be shaken until the area it really controlled – the tyre industry – could be attacked to a decisive extent.” (Jünger 1942, 196; cf. Fischer 1938, 171)

 
 

Is there a danger of a “rubber apocalypse”?

What was definite was that synthetic rubber (“artificial rubber”) had broken the monopoly of natural rubber. Because now it was possible to produce on an industrial scale anywhere in the world what was “originally a raw material confined to specific regions” (Butze 1954, 182) and thus to become completely independent of plantation rubber. Completely independent? The triumphant progress made by synthetic rubber was irreversible, but it proved to be a wrong conclusion that natural rubber would from now on become superfluous or economically insignificant. This has not occurred at all to this day: natural rubber “accounts for 43 per cent” of global rubber production “and the percentage is increasing”, because “the elastic properties of natural rubber are unparalleled” (Hoppenhaus 2013, 36). “Even modern car tyres consist nowadays [...] of 10 to 30 per cent natural rubber, while the figure with lorry tyres is even higher at over 40 per cent.” (Lamparter 2014, 23)

The “rubber conflict” (Jünger 1942) is a thing of the past; synthetic and natural rubber coexist peacefully. The latter – or rather the Hevea brasiliensis tree that supplies it – has an enemy of a very different kind: the Ascomycota fungus Microcyclus ulei that is listed as a weapon in the German War Weapons Control Act (Hoppenhaus 2013, 37). It is still the case that this fungus is only found in Latin America, where it cannot do too much damage in the rainforest – the trees are a long way apart and this is what prevents infestation of epidemic proportions. It doesn’t bear contemplating, however, if the fungus reached Asia one day and spread on the densely planted Hevea plantations – particularly in view of the fact that the trees there are clones, all of which go back to Henry Wickham’s seedlings from 1876 and which therefore represent poor protection against the fungus because they are genetically uniform. Under the attention-grabbing headline “The rubber apocalypse”, Hoppenhaus 2013, 37 says: “Many experts think that the global triumph of Microcyclus ulei [...] is merely a question of time. The consequences would be catastrophic.” We can only hope that this chapter in the history of rubber remains unwritten ...

Copyright:
M. Weber, Ph.D./Guido Deussing

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