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What is rubber?

What is rubber?

  Rubber band ball, rubber, elastic bands, ball of elastic bands  

Rubber is a tough, elastic substance consisting of elastomers (elastic polymers).


Until the 20th century, rubber was always produced naturally, using latex found in the bark of various tropical trees and shrubs. However, nowadays, synthetic rubber is more common. 

  Rubber tapping, producing rubber, collecting latex from tree, drawing sap from tree by tapping  

Although Native Americans had been aware of the useful properties of natural rubber for centuries, it was first brought to Europe in the early 1700s.


Today, natural rubber is mostly produced in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The latex used to make the rubber is drawn from trees through tapping, which involves a diagonal incision being made in their trunks to allow the sap to escape.

  Rubber tyres, synthetic rubber, car tyres  

In order to meet a growing demand which occurred as a result of the invention of the motor car, synthetic rubber was first manufactured at the beginning of the 20th century.


Synthetic rubber is produced from crude oil. Around two thirds of new rubber produced is man-made and there are around twenty different types. 


A brief history

  Rubber ball, olmec ball, Mayan ball   Long before South America was discovered by Western explorers, South American Indians had been moulding items such as shoes and balls out of the dried latex produced by the rubber tree.   
  Rubbing out pencil, erasing pencil, using eraser, using rubber  

In 1735, rubber samples were brought to Europe for the first time. 


Joseph Priestley recognised that the material could be used to rub out pencil marks from paper; it is for this reason that rubber got its name. 

  Masticating machine, Thomas Hancock invention, cutting, rolling and pressing rubber, masticating rubber  

In the early 1800s, Thomas Hancock, an inventor, learnt how to cut, roll and press rubber on an industrial scale. 


He also invented a masticator, a machine that enabled the further use of pieces of scrap rubber, bonding them to create a coherent mass that could be used again in manufacture.

  Extreme temperatures, cold, heat, sunshine, snow  

However, in its natural state, rubber still had a fundamental flaw; in extreme conditions, the material can change drastically. 


In hot temperatures, it is very soft and in the cold, it becomes hard and brittle. In order to tackle this problem, in 1839, Charles Goodyear developed the process of vulcanisation.

  Sulphur and rubber, vulcanisation, vulcanization, heating rubber with sulphur  


Both natural and synthetic rubber can be made tougher by vulcanisation, a curing process where the material is heated with sulphur.


Vulcanisation was initially seen as a way of stabilising rubber and making it unsusceptible to extreme heat and cold. However, it also increases the material’s resistance to abrasion and makes it last longer.

        Wonkee Donkee says: 'Vulcanisation gets its name from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.'
  Car, audi, automobile  

After the introduction of vulcanisation, as a result of its improved properties, the number of applications rubber could be used for grew significantly. 


Most importantly, because rubber could be made tougher than ever before, it could now be used to make tyres for bicycles, and later cars and aeroplanes. This development signalled the dawn of the modern rubber industry.

  Ship, colonial ship, 19th century ship, taking rubber to asia  

As rubber emerged as an important industrial material, demand grew and South American countries including Brazil could no longer be the primary suppliers of rubber. In 1876, seeds were smuggled from Brazil to England and were planted in Kew Gardens.


The seedlings were then shipped to Sri Lanka and Singapore, resulting in the establishment of the Asian rubber industry.



  Tick and cross, green tick and red cross, advantages and disadvantages   ADVANTAGES   DISADVANTAGES   


  • Waterproof

  • Resilient and tough

  • Resistant to heat build-up

  • High deformability – able to stretch and return to its original shape

  • An insulator of heat and electricity


  • Rubber that has not been properly vulcanised can deteriorate if it is exposed to sunlight for long periods



  Strength and flexibility, material properties  

As a result of its toughness, flexibility and waterproof properties, rubber is widely used in the construction, medical and automobile sectors.

  Hand tools with rubber handles: bolt cutters, hammer and screwdriver  

Tool handles

The handles of a variety of different tools are covered with a rubber grip because of the material’s excellent insulation of heat. 


Rubber handles on tools such as hammers, screwdrivers and pliers improve the comfort of the user and make the tools easier to grip.  

  Car tyre, vehicle tyre, rubber tyre  

Vehicle tyres

The most significant use of rubber is in tyres for cars, motorbikes and aircraft. 


This is a  result of the material’s high resistance to wear and tear, in addition to its extreme gripping power which provides the tyres with traction.

  Hosepipe, hose, running water, using hosepipe, watering garden  


Because rubber is both waterproof and impermeable to gases, it is often used to make hosepipes and gas hoses. 

  Rubber mallet, mallet  


In roofing, rubber mallets are used to work sheet metal as they are hard enough to shape the material but won’t leave unsightly marks or dents. 

  Rubber gaskets, gaskets, silicone rubber gaskets  


Gaskets are sometimes made out of rubber as a result of its toughness and ability to deform.


These properties enable rubber gaskets to withstand a great deal of pressure and to fit into the space between two mating surfaces. 

  Rubber waterproof clothing; waterproof jacket, work boots  

Waterproof clothing and footwear 

Rubber is also used to make the soles of shoes, including footwear for tradespeople. Shoes with rubber soles provide the user with excellent grip and wear-resistance so are likely to last a long time.


Rubberised fabric is used to make waterproof clothing, usually jackets. 

      Wonkee Donkee says: 'In 1836, Charles Macintosh learnt how to make fabric waterproof with rubber. As a result of his invention, waterproof raincoats are often called Mackintoshes or Macs.'