Businessman and inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) had visions of making rubber from sources other than the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, which does not grow in the United States. As is generally known, the sap of that tree is called latex. Latex is defined as “a milky exudate from certain plants that coagulates on exposure to air.”1 When they visited the Burbank Plantation in 1915, American Heritage informs us2 that Edison indicated to Ford and Firestone, while visiting the Burbank plantation, that during times of war availability of rubber would be cut off. Ford asked Edison to do something about that. Reputedly, Edison responded, “I will-some day.”
The three men eventually formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation (1927) to accomplish the purpose. The approach was to find a substitute naturally occurring plant source. After trying many exotics, Edison tried local goldenrod.
Yield and Cost Considerations
After much research, particularly by Edison employee Bernard Jonas on some 17,000 plants, goldenrod was selected as the plant to explore in-depth. In particular, a variety of Solidago leavenworthii he labeled “E.P.C. 573” was discovered and chosen for close consideration. Edison finally had a goldenrod that could produce up to 12 percent latex.3
To counter costs and make production profitable, goldenrod waste needed to become an asset. It was suggested the waste might be useful in the manufacture of paper, for making fiberboard, etc. The cost of harvesting also needed minimization. In addition, it was important that those taking the lead in this research should be able to see the development through.
Bad Timing in Two Respects
Unfortunately, in 1931 Edison became gravely ill, and eventually succumbed. Edison’s materials were made available to the United States government, but other developments put the project on hold. In addition, a competing technology was being developed-the manufacture of artificial rubber not requiring any plants-neoprene. By 1940 in fact, artificial rubber was considered the less costly of the two processes, and thus the project begun by the Edison and his industrialist friends effectually came to an end.
As was the case with Edison’s unfortunate choice to pursue DC current over the AC current of Nicola Tesla, his pursuit of an alternative natural source of rubber over an artificial one proved equally unfortunate. Yet, what might have resulted if Edison’s line of thinking was followed to its logical conclusion? It would be very interesting to know.
1Princeton’s WordNet Search.
2American Heritage, “Edison: Last days of the wizard.”
3The New York Botanical Garden – Thomas A. Edison Papers.
References and Resources:
Time – Science: Goldenrod Rubber (Monday December 16, 1929)
The New York Botanical Garden – Thomas A. Edison Papers
Edison & Ford Winter Estates – The Thomas Edison Laboratory
“Growing American rubber: strategic plants and the politics of national security,” by Mark R. Finlay.