BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Charles Slack, what was the "Noble Obsession"?
CHARLES SLACK, AUTHOR, "NOBLE OBSESSION": Well, the noble obsession in the title of the book was Charles Goodyear's obsessive quest to find a way to take rubber, which was sort of an industrial curiosity, an industrial sideshow until he got a hold of it, and to turn it into a commodity which really changed the world. And he went on a quest for about 10 years to find the secret and then to perfect it. And he did it at tremendous cost to himself and to his family. And that was his noble obsession. He was obsessed with rubber.
LAMB: On the cover of this book now, you have two photographs.
LAMB: Which one of these is Charles Goodyear?
SLACK: Charles Goodyear is the fellow on the left, and the fellow on the right is Thomas Hancock.
LAMB: Who was Thomas Hancock?
SLACK: And Thomas Hancock was Charles Goodyear's principal competitor. Charles Goodyear was an American. Thomas Hancock was an Englishman. And Thomas Hancock had been known as the father of the rubber industry, the early rubber industry, when it first began appearing in large quantities in the early 1800s in Europe and America. And he had come through with -- he was a brilliant inventor and a very good businessman, and he had come through with some very important discoveries and inventions on rubber.
Where he and Goodyear clashed -- Goodyear, on the other hand, was obscure, poverty-stricken, in and out of debtors' prison, ridiculed by virtually everyone, pitied by those who didn't ridicule him. And where their two worlds came into collision was when Goodyear had finally perfected the process and sent over some small samples -- foolishly, because he hadn't taken a patent out yet, but sent some samples over to England to try to attract British investors. He always needed money.
And they got into the hands of Thomas Hancock, and Hancock decided to see if he could reverse-engineer these samples. He was dumbfounded because he had thought that rubber's great flaw couldn't be solved, and he saw that it could, and he was dumbfounded. And he spent the next year in his secret laboratory reverse-engineering Goodyear's invention and actually beat Goodyear to the British patent office, which was the most important at the time.
LAMB: I suppose the obvious question is what year did Charles Goodyear start the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company?
SLACK: Well, that's a good question, and it leads me to the discussion of what this book is not about, and that is it is not about -- a book about tires and it's not a book about the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for the simple reason that Charles Goodyear died in 1860, before there was any need for an inflatable tire, and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was started by two brothers in Akron, Ohio, in 1898, 38 years after Goodyear's death. And because of the name of the company, there's a good deal of confusion on this point. My own mother -- that I was writing a book about tires. My own mother, well into my process, would ask me how the "Firestone book" is coming!
LAMB: Now, when you go to -- is the headquarters still in Akron, Ohio, for Goodyear?
SLACK: Goodyear Tire and Rubber is headquartered in Akron, yes.
LAMB: Have you been there?
SLACK: I have. I went to Akron twice. I did some research at the company, which has become sort of the de facto repository for a lot of Goodyear memorabilia, documents, and so forth. The University of Akron archives has a couple of cardboard boxes full of Goodyear information and Goodyear Company, as it relates to Charles Goodyear information. And then also, there's a place called the Rubber Library, which is in Akron. And I spent a good deal of time researching there.
LAMB: Now, how did they get the name, then?
SLACK: How did the Goodyear...
LAMB: The company, yes.
SLACK: Well, it was these two brothers, Frank Seiberling and his brother, Charles. And they -- Frank was the original founder and was looking for a company to start, and the B.F. Goodrich Company had already been started in Akron. And I think that Goodyear served a dual purpose. It had sort of a nice association in the word with Goodrich. It sounded similar. And also, it was a way to pay homage to Goodyear and to also associate itself with the birth of the industry.
LAMB: Now, in the back of your book, under the liner notes about you -- "Charles Slack is the author of `Blue Fairways.'"
LAMB: What's that?
SLACK: Well, that was a book on a completely different subject. I had taken up golf while I was a reporter at the "Richmond Times Dispatch," and I had this idea coming home from a round of golf one day, wouldn't it be nice to see America by just going one golf course to the next, because when you play golf, you get five hours with perfect strangers, which is something that you don't get in very many other activities, environments. So I had this idea, and I started on Route 1 in northern Maine, Fort Kent, Maine, and I worked my way down, one golf course at a time, to Key West, Florida. And I played in the potato fields of northern Maine, and I played in the Bronx, and I played in the Okeefenokee Swamp and down the coast of Florida.
LAMB: How long did it take you?
SLACK: It took me over a period of three months -- I didn't do it all at once, but I took a leave of absence from my newspaper job which I had at the time and -- it was a six-month leave of absence. The traveling took about three months of that.
LAMB: What year did you do it?
SLACK: I did it in 1997, the summer of 1997, and the book was published in 1999.
LAMB: And how well did the book do?
SLACK: Well, it did pretty well. It went into paperback, and it's still going in paperback in stores. And it's gotten a nice reception.
LAMB: What would you say was one of the big lessons you learned from that three months on the road?
SLACK: That I loved golf still, wasn't that crazy about hotel rooms!
SLACK: But I learned a lot about America. I had sort of expected Route 1 to be an exercise in nostalgia, and sort of run-down motels. And it's been superseded long since by Interstate 95. And what I found was really in both the golf courses and in the road itself, signs all over of America reinventing itself at every turn. And so it was really sort of a story about renewal and the future, as much as it was about the past. I came across wonderful old golf courses that had been brought back to life by concerted efforts of inner city residents and things like that.
LAMB: The "Noble Obsession" book -- which one is this for you?
SLACK: This is my second.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea? Can you remember the moment that this...
SLACK: I do.
LAMB: ... seemed to be a...
SLACK: It was in the summer of 2000, and I was reading a book that my parents gave me a long time ago, which is one of my favorite books, "Webster's American Biographies." And it has these wonderful sort of thumbnail sketches of people, and I was just reading through it one day and came across Goodyear's name. And I assumed, like I think most other people, that this was just -- I almost didn't read it because I assumed that this was just going to be sort of a history of a guy who started the tire company and died rich in Akron.
Well, I read the entry, and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. There were stories of -- there were -- mention of debtors' prisons, which I didn't even know we had debtors' prisons in this country -- I thought that was Dickensian England, Europe, a European phenomenon -- and found that he was not the man who started the tire company but a starving inventor from Connecticut. And there were just all these -- and then the story of the competition with Thomas Hancock, and so forth, came up. And the more I read, the more fascinated I became.
And then I took a trip out to Akron, my first trip out, and went to the Rubber Library and started researching there. And I just became more and more fascinated, which to me is always a good sign that this is something that I might be able to make interesting to other people.
LAMB: In the middle of your book, Daniel Webster shows up.
SLACK: Isn't that great? Daniel Webster, who was an incredible figure -- he was sort of like a movie star in the way that people treated him and people thought of him. He gave three-hour speeches that held people spellbind. He'd held just about every important national office, with the exception of the presidency. And he came in -- probably my chief villain -- I see Horace -- I see Thomas Hancock as sort of a tragic figure, in a way, in the sense that he was a wonderful inventor himself, and he made this sort of ethical choice not to give Goodyear credit. And I see -- and it's sort of affixed to his name this sort of mark of a bit of a cheat or a sneak, when, in fact, he was a wonderful inventor. So I see him as sort of a tragic figure.
There is an out-and-out villain in the story, and his name was Horace Day, who not only got rich off Charles Goodyear's invention but made it his goal in life to rip off Charles Goodyear however and wherever and whenever he could. And finally, Goodyear -- this was after the discovery had been made, and Goodyear held the U.S. patent, even though he'd lost out on the English patent.
And Horace Day had been infringing and infringing, and finally, Goodyear's licensees in America, the Goodyear Shoe Association, got together the funds to sue Horace Day for patent infringement in a case that became known as "the great India rubber case" of 1852. And they hired as their attorney Daniel Webster, who was then secretary of state to Millard Fillmore. And he was nearing the end of his career. He was close to 70 years old, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. He had lost a step or two, to say the least.
He really didn't need the publicity to be had from representing Goodyear and his licensees, but he needed the money. That was what he had in common with Charles Goodyear. For all of his august positions that he'd held, he was a spendthrift and he needed the money. And they offered him what was then a phenomenal sum of $10,000, plus another $6,000 if he could win this case.
LAMB: I'll come back to that, but go to Charles Goodyear for a moment. What were the years that he lived?
SLACK: Charles Goodyear was born in 1800, and he died in 1860.
LAMB: And where was he born?
SLACK: He was born in New Haven, Connecticut. When he was 5 years old, he moved to Naugatuck, which is about 10 or 12 miles up the road due north. The Goodyears were actually founding members of the New Haven colony. His ancestor, Stephen Goodyear, was one of the wealthiest and principal founders of the colony back in the early 1600s.
LAMB: Where do you live?
SLACK: I live in Trumbull, Connecticut, which is about 20 minutes from New Haven. Interestingly, for me, I probably didn't plan it out as well as I could because at the time I did all the research for my book, or most of the research, I was living in Virginia. And so my research included long trips to places that I now live 20 minutes from.
LAMB: What was his family like when he was growing up?
SLACK: Well, when he was growing up, his father, Amasa -- A-M-A-S-A -- Goodyear was an inventor himself. He produced the buttons worn by American soldiers in the War of 1812. He was a tinkerer and a businessman. And he had two principal qualities that he passed on to his son, and one was a vision for products that others didn't see and -- being ahead of his time, and the other was a debilitating lack of business sense, a lack of how to be a businessman. And so Goodyear -- Charles Goodyear inherited both of those.
Goodyear was the oldest of six children, and when he was 5, they -- Amasa had run a shipping company in New Haven. I actually found a notice in a New Haven newspaper for a shareholders' meeting at Amasa Goodyear's house. But that failed, and he moved the family up north into the wilds of Connecticut to run a mill.
LAMB: Did Charles Goodyear have education?
SLACK: Charles Goodyear had a -- I think for the time, a pretty good education. He didn't have a higher education, but he did have through his teens, and he was a very sort of serious, studious child, did a lot of reading, particularly of the Bible.
LAMB: As we sit here right now, I suspect you could find rubber in our shoes, in our socks, in our underwear. I don't know where else.
LAMB: Everywhere. What about in the early 1800s? Could you?
SLACK: No, you couldn't. Rubber had been around for centuries. The South American natives had been using it, and Europeans had been aware of it since the late 15th century and 16th century. In the early 1800s, it began making a strong appearance into the United States and Europe. And there was a great deal of excitement because it was just at the very dawning of the industrial age, and there was a great deal of excitement. There was no other substance like it. It was airtight. It was waterproof. It was elastic. You could stretch it out and it would snap back to its original shape. You could compress it and it would bounce back. It had a seemingly unlimited variety of uses, which later proved to be the case.
And in the 1830s, it really took off, and people started investing -- I sort of compare it to the Internet boom of the '90s, where it attracted all sorts of investment from people who weren't sure exactly how it was going to make a profit, but they didn't want to be left out.
Well, rubber turned out to have a very fatal flaw, which is that when the temperature gets very hot out, rubber becomes sticky -- this is raw rubber that we're talking about -- becomes sticky, and then if the heat is intensified, it becomes gooey, and then it actually melts and starts to run. And when the weather gets very cold, it starts to crack.
And so sure enough, in New England, which has the wild temperature swings that it does, the first really hot summer came along -- would have been maybe like this summer -- and all of these life preservers and raincoats and so forth that the Roxbury India Rubber Company and other companies had produced were being returned as sticky, gooey bobs, foul-smelling, and they were sitting back in the warehouses. So for all intents, the rubber industry looked like it was dead in the water.
LAMB: By the way, you see the word "India" so often in the title of these rubber companies. Where's that coming from?
SLACK: That's from the Indes, which is the -- the rubber plant is actually -- rubber -- it comes from latex, which is produced by about 300 varieties of plants around the world. Latex is a sort of milky substance, and you can find it in, for example, dandelions. If you snap off a dandelion, you see that sort of milk ring. That's latex.
One interesting story is during World War II, when the Japanese blockaded the rubber plantations, the Soviets actually experimented with cultivating vast fields of dandelions to supply them with rubber. And Thomas Edison, at one point, experimenting with cultivating goldenrod to get his rubber.
But the best rubber comes from a plant, the Hevea tree, which comes from -- which is native to Brazil.
LAMB: I wrote down a bunch of words that -- in reading about the rubber -- when you get past the latex, then you get to magnesia, and then you get to turpentine and lime and nitric acid and naphtha, urine, vulcanite. What are -- how did -- tell us about how all those ingredients got into this?
SLACK: Well, rubber comes out, as I say, in this milky latex form, then it has to be -- and it's called -- it's sort of -- it's compared to milk frequently, and not just because of its texture and its appearance, but also because it spoils quickly. So what happens -- what happened in Goodyear's time was in Brazil or wherever the rubber was coming from, the latex would be smoked and the water removed. And what you would have is these layered what were called "biscuits" of rubber. And they would be very inconsistent and they would have soot and they would have ash and whatever else was floating around the air in the jungle.
And when you had this sort of knobby lump of rubber, you had to find a way to make it usable, to break it down. And one of the substances that can be used to break it down is turpentine. And so Goodyear's first experiments, like all the early rubber experimenters, were to chop up and tear up rubber into small pieces, roll it out, mix it with turpentine until it became this sort of semi-liquid substance that could then be spread on cloth, shaped into various shapes, and so forth.
LAMB: How did he first get interested in it, and where did he live?
SLACK: Goodyear was living in Philadelphia. He had gone to Philadelphia as a teenager and worked as an apprentice to a hardware store. And then he'd gone back to -- he'd had a physical breakdown. He was in terrible physical health his entire life, and he'd gone back to Naugatuck. And then shortly after he was married, he went to -- back to Philadelphia in 1826 to start what was the first American hardware store that was devoted solely to domestically produced goods. They produced -- his father produced hay and manure forks which were made of steel and lighter than the other kinds. And they manufactured other goods, and they started this hardware store.
Well, about 1830, there was a financial panic, and the hardware store basically collapsed. Goodyear had his first stint in debtors' prison. And it was about 1834 when Goodyear came across rubber for the first significant time. And he was in the offices -- the New York offices of the Roxbury India Rubber Company, which had been the first and the biggest American rubber company.
And he came across a life preserver, and he decided that he could make a better valve for the life preserver. And so he went back home and perfected this valve. He wasn't really thinking about rubber at that time. And then he came back with the valve and tried to sell it to the agent, and the agent said, "Well, this is a great valve, but I've got something to show you." And he took him around to the warehouse, where were just these rank, foul blobs of goo which had been life preservers and caps, and so forth, that had been returned because of the heat.
And the way Goodyear told it was this agent said, "If somebody wants to make his mark on the world, he should find a way to prevent this from happening." And that -- a light went off, or a bell rang for Goodyear, or something, and that became his obsession for the rest of his life.
LAMB: Now, he would have been 34 years old in 1834.
LAMB: How many times did he marry?
SLACK: He married twice. His first wife was Clarissa, and she died in the early 1850s. And then he married -- he was living in England at the time, and then he married a 20-year-old Englishwoman, Fanny Wardell.
LAMB: When he was 53 or 54.
LAMB: And how many children did he have?
SLACK: He had a total of 12. He had 9 with his first wife and 3 with his second. And of those, 7 died.
LAMB: Of what?
SLACK: Before he did. Of just -- of various ailments. They -- there aren't a great deal of records about what, exactly, they die of, but they were -- the family was poverty-stricken for a great deal of time. They were undernourished. And the young children, several of them, succumbed.
LAMB: What did she die of, Clarissa?
SLACK: It's not known, unfortunately, what she died of.
LAMB: And he lived to be 60 years old.
LAMB: You say at the end of his life, he was $191,000 in debt?
SLACK: Yes. Well, close to $200,000 in debt.
LAMB: And that's 1860.
SLACK: That's right. Goodyear lived much of his life or most of his life in poverty, or in financial straits, I should say. Poverty is probably the wrong term to use for the latter part of his life. During his obsessive quest to find the vulcanization process, which he discovered, which changed rubber and changed the world...
LAMB: By the way, before you go on, what does that mean?
SLACK: OK. Vulcanization is the term -- it was actually -- the term was devised by a friend of Thomas Hancock's, named for the Roman god of fire, Vulcan.
LAMB: And Thomas Hancock's in Great Britain during...
SLACK: In England, right.
LAMB: ... all this time.
SLACK: But vulcanization is the process by which rubber is transformed so that it is no longer susceptible to heat or cold. And this was Goodyear's great discovery. I can explain that – I’ll come back to the other subject. It's -- rubber has this quality, as I say, of being pliant and elastic. And the chemical properties of rubber really weren't known will well into the 20th century. So everything was trial and error. And even after the process, nobody -- Goodyear nor anybody else -- really knew exactly what he'd discovered, why.
But rubber has the molecular make-up of -- it's C5H8, just -- five carbons, eight hydrogens. And that's not very notable. It's not too dramatic. But what was discovered in the 20th century was that rubber's actually not just that one unit of C5H8, but it's 20,000 of those strung together in a macro-molecule. So you have these long snakes. They're still very small compared to what we can see, but they're gigantic compared to most other molecules.
And they're not connected -- rubber molecules are not connected to one another at a molecular level. They are -- if you can imagine thousands, millions of twisted snakes twisted around each other into a ball. And so when you pull rubber, those snakes, the chains sort of stretch out, and you let go and they snap back to their original shape. You compress it, the same thing happens. They snap back. So that's the wonderful property of rubber. But since they're not connected at a molecular level, when you add heat, those long snakes, those long chains relax, and they begin to slip away from each other. And so that's where you get the stickiness and the goo, and so forth.
LAMB: So back in those years, if you said, "Come with me, I want to take you to the warehouse and show you rubber," and you walked in there, what would you see? What did it look like?
LAMB: Was it a block? Was it a sheet? Was it black? Was it...
SLACK: Oh, well, it would all depend on what state it was in. If it was in -- you might have a hunk of -- I have a hunk of raw rubber at home. It's just sort of a square piece. I mean, it would come from South America in these lumpy biscuits, and then it would be chopped up, and so forth. And sometimes it was -- when it was mixed with turpentine, sometimes it would be spread on cloth, so you'd have rubber fabric. Other times, it would be made into products that were solid rubber.
LAMB: So if you go back to the debt thing, before we got to the vulcanization -- and by the way, what year...
SLACK: Well, I need to explain what exactly -- and I'll do it quickly, but what vulcanization did was when Goodyear finally, after experimenting with many of the chemicals that you mentioned, which may have helped kill him, he happened upon sulphur, which -- what sulphur does, sulphur with heat, it connects those individual rubber molecules, those long chains, to one another. So it's called cross-linking. So what you have is a substance that still is pliable. You can still stretch it and it snaps back, and compress it and it snaps. And it's still waterproof and airtight and all those wonderful things, but since the molecules are now connected to each other, they're much stronger. So under heat, it doesn't run. So that was his great -- that was vulcanization. That was his great breakthrough.
LAMB: But the $200,000 in debt in 1860 is -- what's that worth today?
SLACK: A lot.
LAMB: Millions and millions.
SLACK: Yes. As I said, he was in poverty most of his life. Early on, during his quest, that was -- I wouldn't think his fault because he just didn't have the money. Later he bears a lot of responsibility for that. He was a miserable businessman. He was careless with money. He didn't have much of a concept of money, and so no matter how much money he made, he kept spending it.
He didn't live -- he wasn't a spendthrift, in the sense of buying himself huge mansions, and so forth, but everything that he earned went back into more experiments. And after he'd come up with the great breakthrough, and other people were making on his licenses by cranking out widgets, and so forth, Goodyear was off trying to invent -- trying to create rubber ship's sails and these rubber globes that he would fill with gas and they'd float to the ceiling. And he just had this sort of romantic conception of rubber in life, and he didn't have much of a business sense.
LAMB: How many times did he go to debtors' prison?
SLACK: I'm not sure of the exact number, but he had his first time in Philadelphia, and his last time was more than 20 years later, in England, so...
LAMB: But I get the impression, though, it was -- you know...
SLACK: Many times.
LAMB: Many, many times.
SLACK: Yes. Many times.
LAMB: And how long would you go to debtors' prison, and what was it?
SLACK: Well, debtors' prison was really sort of one of -- in my opinion, one of the more shameful things that -- from the early -- from the 19th century for a country that sort of -- professing itself to be dedicated to liberty. It was this horrendous institution where you could be locked up, essentially, for very trifling sums. You became sort of the property of your creditor, who decided when you were going to be -- who decided to have you arrested if you couldn't repay.
In Philadelphia, where Goodyear was first imprisoned, creditors had to pay a 20-cent-a-day bread fee for -- for a couple of loaves of bread and a blanket for -- or a loaf and a couple of blankets to keep you alive, and essentially could keep you there indefinitely. I think most terms were a period of days, maybe 20 days, and so forth, but some were far longer.
LAMB: You say that he lived in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, England, France and Washington, D.C. Why was he here in this town?
SLACK: Well, he came back -- he lived there at the very end of his life. It was the last place he lived. And he'd come back to the United States. He'd been living in Europe, in France and England, and he came back in the late 1850s to fight a patent extension case, to try to extend his patent and claimed that he hadn't made enough money off rubber and to keep his patent alive for another 10 years. And he won this case. And then he came back to the United States full-time, and he was living in New York, and he moved to Washington. And it's not clear exactly why he moved to Washington, but I think that he was down there for that case and liked it.
LAMB: How long did he live in England or in France?
SLACK: He lived in England -- he was sort of off and on -- it's very difficult -- he moved around so much, but he moved to England in the early 1850s, and he became a major part of the Exposition of 1851. He had a wonderful -- London exhibition and had a wonderful exhibit there, which got a lot of attention. It was really his medium because it wasn't something where he had to sell products and show how to make money off rubber, it was celebrating the esthetic wonders of the world, and he was able to produce this exhibit that had paintings on slabs of hard rubber and armoirs and medals, and so forth. And it really was, apparently, a breathtaking exhibit. And, he was over there for a number of years and he went - there was an exhibition in France later which he also participated in and he lived there for a couple of years.
LAMB: If you were going to make the most positive statement you could about what he accomplished, what would you say Charles Goodyear did?
SLACK: Charles Goodyear, through his almost superhuman perseverance came up with an invention that changed the world that took a substance which would only have a sideshow type of benefit to people and turned it into, made it capable of becoming a substance that is a part of everything that we do to this day.
People think mainly, of course, of the automobile tires, which vulcanization made possible, but rubber also since it doesn't conduct electricity, is a poor conductor of electricity, it became essential as an insulation for the electrical industry, for telephones, plumbing, aviation. It's an essential component so that's what he gave the world.
LAMB: And what year did he do the actual inventing?
SLACK: He made the discovery by accident. He was living in Woburn, Massachusetts.
LAMB: Where is Woburn?
SLACK: Woburn is about ten miles north of Boston, and he was living there. He'd been in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which is in part of Boston and had been working with the remnants of the Roxbury India Rubber Company. By that time, the rubber industry has shrunk down to a very few hardy souls who still believed in it.
This was in the early 1830s, early to mid 1830s, and had a falling out with the Roxbury India Rubber Company and heard about a mill in Woburn, Massachusetts, a few miles away and so he moved to Woburn and began working with Nathaniel Hayward who had been a stable operator but had become enamored of rubber and actually first gave Goodyear the idea to use sulfur in experiments.
And Goodyear worked in Woburn for several years and came up by accident with the discovery in 1839 and it's not clear. The specifics are still kind of vague. We have Goodyear's own account of it but his memoirs are written in this sort of third person elliptical, vague, hard to pin down way.
But it seems that he had been mixing sulfur with rubber and dropped some on a stove and then came back later and was astonished to find that the rubber hadn't melted but it had toughened and that was his - he knew that that was a great discovery. By that time, everybody was fed up with the rubber industry, so he couldn't convince people that he'd come up with this important discovery and then he also had a very difficult time reproducing it. So that was another.
One of the most poignant aspects of the Goodyear story is that when he had this eureka moment, it wasn't like his life turned for the better. If anything, he sank deeper into poverty and despair and he became consumed with the fear that he would die before the world recognized this discovery he'd made.
LAMB: He was sick all the time of what?
SLACK: He was sick from the time he was a teenager and perhaps before. He had gone at the age of 17 to work as an apprentice for a hardware company in Philadelphia and had to leave because he had a physical breakdown. It was sort of - his ailments came under the general umbrella term of dyspepsia. He had these various gastric problems and these plagued him throughout his life.
He also worked with a number of very harsh substances, including nitric acid and lead and there were no safety codes in those days. He was mixing it and molding it with his hands and that, perhaps, contributed. He suffered from gout. He was kind of a physical wreck.
LAMB: So, if you go back to 1839, he's in Woburn.
LAMB: Is his wife - they'd be married for how long?
SLACK: They were married in the 1820s, so I guess about 13 years.
LAMB: And how many children had they had at that time?
LAMB: She had nine of his kids?
SLACK: Yes. So, it would have been six or seven.
LAMB: If you were able to see him, where he lived and what kind of dad he was being at that point, what would you see and where did he do his experiments? Because, you talk a lot about him doing experimenting on his kitchen stove.
SLACK: Yes, he did experiments basically wherever he could find heat because once he knew that heat was an essential component, he began to look for fire wherever he could find it, and he would, when he was able to use this mill in Woburn, he would use that. He built an oven there but he was chronically behind on his payments, so he was not always able to use that.
He would go around to the local blacksmiths and cajole them. He was an excellent beggar. He had no shame. He was convinced of the holiness of his mission and he had no shame about sponging off his fellow residents of Woburn or anywhere else for use of their fire or for money, and he would go around to the blacksmiths and so forth at the end of the day and say, can I use your fire before it dies out and, of course, some of them agreed.
One of the most wonderful aspects of Goodyear's life was the forbearance of the citizens of Woburn, Mass who put up with him. He was a stranger basically and put up with him and showed him kindness and other residents showed kindness to his family when they saw them digging half grown potatoes out of the fields for food.
LAMB: Who was Horace Cutler?
SLACK: Horace Cutler was a minor but very important figure in the Goodyear story. When Goodyear had moved on from Woburn to Springfield, Massachusetts, and was working there on perfecting his process, this was after his discovery of 1839, and he was - he convinced Horace Cutler who was a shoe manufacturer to come in with him.
Goodyear was very good at convincing people that fame and fortune was right around the corner, and I don't think he was lying. I think he believed that his whole life and he convinced Horace Cutler to invest, to become a partner with him.
Well, Horace Cutler after a time said where's the payoff and Goodyear kept with his experimenting and trying different configurations of his oven and the shoes would come out blistered and so forth.
And Cutler after a while became fed up and that was when Horace Day, who is my villain in the story, came in contact with Horace Cutler and convinced Horace Cutler to come down to New Jersey where Horace Day lived and essentially tell him the secret that he'd learned from his close association with Goodyear and, in the course of a couple of days, Cutler basically spilled these secrets which had taken Goodyear years to develop.
LAMB: What happened? What did Horace Day do with that information?
SLACK: Horace Day took that information and tried to reproduce vulcanization and he had difficulty doing it and it drove him crazy. As I say, it's a delicate process and even if you know how to - even if you have the basic formula, it take a while to get the exact measurements and the heat and so forth, so Day had difficulty reproducing it.
He then traveled to Springfield and tried to wheedle his way into Goodyear's mill and wasn't able to get in, and then after that, he sort of made a career out of once the process became better and better known and perfected, he made a career out of ripping Goodyear off at every turn.
LAMB: So, back to the trial, what year was the trial and why did Daniel Webster get involved in it?
SLACK: The trial was in 1852 and Daniel Webster became involved with it basically because he needed the money. He, at first, declined. As I said, he didn't need the publicity of being involved in this case.
LAMB: You say he was the secretary of state at that point?
LAMB: Did he take this case on as the secretary of state?
SLACK: Yes. I think that was not unheard of at the time to do private - it wasn't the way, I don't think, it obviously wouldn't happen today but I think in...
LAMB: What was the venue?
SLACK: It was in federal court and the case was heard in Trenton, New Jersey.
LAMB: And who is the fellow Choate?
SLACK: Rufus Choate was Daniel Webster's opponent and he's a very interesting character. He's sort of similar to Webster, a younger version. He was maybe 15 years younger than Daniel Webster, both graduates of Dartmouth, both brilliant lawyers. Choate somewhat less famous than Webster, less of a sort of mythical figure, but he had been a Senator and Congressman and was known as one of the most skilled trial lawyers in America.
LAMB: And he represented who in this?
SLACK: He represented Horace Day, and in fact, Choate had in the most celebrated, one of the most celebrated murder trials of the 19th Century, he had represented a fellow from Weymouth, Massachusetts, who had killed his lover and Choate put forth a sleepwalking defense, which gave him quite a bit of notoriety, and he became known as the wizard of the law because after the fellow was acquitted.
LAMB: And the case was about what, between Horace Day and Charles Goodyear, and who brought the case?
SLACK: It was Goodyear and they Goodyear shoe associates who were his licensees because, by this time, Goodyear had the U.S. patent and they brought this case against Horace Day for repeated infringements, turning out rubber goods when he did not hold the license to do that, and he'd been doing it.
And, patent infringement was rampant and I think that not just by Horace Day but by others, but I think they wanted to make an example of Horace Day, and Horace Day was a very combative individual. He fought numerous legal battles, not just against Goodyear, but all of his life against any number of people, and he was a combative soul. And so, he didn't back down and it all culminated in this great trial.
And, before the trial, lawyers for both sides took depositions from people and Horace Day found, dragged up these individuals, several individuals who claimed that they, in fact, had invented vulcanization. Horace Day claimed that he had invented vulcanization, even though Horace Cutler notwithstanding, so he was a pretty...
LAMB: Who won the trial?
SLACK: Goodyear won resoundingly. It's not clear how much money Goodyear or the associates ever got out of Horace Day but the judgment came back resoundingly in Goodyear's favor, and it was Daniel Webster's final court battle and he won, and the decision actually came down shortly before Webster died.
LAMB: 1860 he dies, Charles Goodyear, 1861 the Civil War begins, was there any impact on what he had invented on our, either the Union side or the Confederate side in the Civil War?
SLACK: Yes. Soldiers went off to battle with rubber tents, rubber ponchos, rubber canteens and so forth. It was already becoming a major commodity. The benefits of vulcanization were already apparent and so it was widely used. And then, of course, by the 20th Century, rubber along with oil and food and a few other things becomes the thing that armies move and live or die on.
And that's why it is a huge role in the military and that's why, as I said earlier, when the Japanese, by the 20th Century, virtually all of the rubber plantations were in the Far East and when the Japanese blockaded the rubber plantations, it was very serious for the allies.
And, interestingly, there had been predictions that it would take decades to come up with a usable synthetic rubber, and the United States responded then with a very short period of a couple of years, had come up with synthetic rubber and that was the birth of synthetic rubber during the 1940s.
LAMB: You say that in 1853 that Charles Goodyear wrote a book called "Gum Elastic with its Varieties with a Detailed Account of its Application and Uses and of the Discovery of Vulcanization." That's all one title?
LAMB: And, that was 1853 and they only printed 12 copies of the book?
SLACK: Yes, only a very few copies were printed. It was just quintessential Charles Goodyear, huge effort, very impressive, but he never entirely finished it. If you get a copy of the book, you see there are words missing. There are places that he obviously intended to put in a paragraph. There are just actually blanks on the page where there's a word missing.
LAMB: How big a book was it?
SLACK It was two volumes about a total of about 600 pages.
LAMB: Have you read it?
SLACK: Yes, and it goes on and on and on about - most of it is his predictions for what he thinks various uses of rubber might be and it's just incredible the variety. In fact, interestingly, the inflatable tire as I say is one of the few things that he didn't predict.
But, there's also a certain element of memoir to it and he tells the story of his quest to come up with vulcanization. But unfortunately, there are some details but it's very vague on lots of the things you'd like to know more about.
LAMB: So, if you vulcanize rubber today, do you start with latex?
SLACK: Well, it's...raw rubber still starts with the latex and then it gets smoked and turned into this hard raw rubber, from latex into rubber, and then from there it has to be broken down and mixed with sulfur and then it is shaped into whatever product it's going to be and then it is subjected to heat and it emerges vulcanized.
Interestingly, the term rubber comes from, in the 18th Century one of the first practical uses, well before vulcanization, was that it was found to be useful for erasing pencil marks, for rubbing them out and that's where the term rubber comes from.
LAMB: You started in this business where as a writer?
SLACK: I was a newspaper reporter out of college for the Chattanooga Times.
LAMB: Where was college first?
SLACK: At Harvard, and my first job was in Tennessee, the Chattanooga Times, and then...
LAMB: Is that owned by the New York Times?
SLACK: Well, it's owned by the same family and there's still a deep family association. My publisher at the time, Ruth Holmberg, was a member of the family. And then after that, I wrote for the Richmond Times Dispatch in Virginia, and I was a feature writer and then a business reporter.
And then, when I was coming out with "Blue Fairways" the book we talked about earlier, I left that to do freelance writing full time, something I had always told myself I would never do.
LAMB: What year did you graduate from Harvard?
SLACK: In 1983.
LAMB: What did you study?
LAMB: And so how many years were you a newspaper reporter?
SLACK: I was a newspaper reporter for about; let's see, about 15 years.
LAMB: And why did you move to Trumbull, Connecticut?
SLACK: My family, I grew up outside of Boston, and my parents are still in the Boston area. My in-laws are in Norwalk, Connecticut, which is down the road from Trumbull and we just got - I have two daughters, two young daughters, and we just got tired of doing I-95. We loved Richmond, but it was time to get back close to family and then, I find it very exciting to be near New York City.
LAMB: It says again in the information, the background, that you write for "Esquire Double Take" what's that?
SLACK: "Double Take" is a literary of arts, cultural magazine. It's a wonderful magazine.
LAMB: "Reader's Digest 64" what's that?
SLACK: "64" is a magazine. Unfortunately it just went out of business after I put the reference in there, but it was a wonderful magazine that was started in Richmond, Virginia, sort of an arts and cultural magazine, very high quality production, and it covered Virginia, and they were just very kind to me when I started out in freelance writing and gave me a lot of magazine work, and I want to acknowledge them.
LAMB: All right, what's the origin, I think I may have the secret when you say you went to Harvard, what's the origin of the Robert Coles, Pulitzer Prize winner of "Children of Crisis" endorsing this book?
SLACK: Well, Robert Coles was a professor of mine at Harvard and I got to know him a bit. I had actually written an essay. I took a course. I think it was called "The Literature of Social Reflection" and it was just a legendary course.
But several hundred students, and Coles is sort of a legendary figure there, and I wrote an essay for his class never thinking I would meet him but I was doing some writing for the newspaper and I published this essay in the newspaper and got a very nice personal message from him, a personal note, which was really a wonderful thing and have been friends with him ever since.
LAMB: Then, a fellow named Dean King, who is the author of "Patrick O'Brian A Life," says “Charles Slack has plucked a gem from American history.” How do you know Dean King?
SLACK: I know Dean King. He is a writer who lives in Richmond. He formerly lived in New York City, and I got to know him when he was editing magazines in New York. He was from Richmond and I wrote a couple of short articles about him for the Richmond Times Dispatch and we became friendly, and I wound up doing some work with him.
And he has sort of made the transition into being a full time book writer and he moved back to Virginia and we've just become good friends and he's in some ways been my, even though he's a couple of years younger than I am, he's sort of become my mentor in a lot of ways.
LAMB: How would you say today you make you living?
SLACK: I make my living as a freelance writer. I think when you do that you have to find a formula that works for you, and what I've found is I do a lot of - I do magazine writing but when it sort of comes along but my bread and butter is I do a lot of business writing for places like American Express Custom Publishing, and Time, Inc. Custom Publishing, and so forth, and that supplies a good chunk of income, and then I try to work on a - have a book going.
LAMB: Go back to some of these names in the book. Charles Goodyear we've talked about. Nathaniel Hayward, we talked a little bit about. Horace Day, Horace Cutler, and now Thomas Hancock who has his picture on the front of this book, we haven't spent much time. Did you go try to find out where he was from? Did you go to his home?
SLACK: Well, he spent most of his life living in London, and I did go to England, one of the most satisfying and rewarding parts of my research. The research took me all over the place in the United States, in the Eastern United States.
But one of the most rewarding trips was to England where I went to principally two places, the Science Museum in London, where I came across a box filled with records from Thomas Hancock's company, and the subsequent companies that came out of that, and these were glass plates that hadn't been looked at for quite some time, but it was down in the basement. I was looking through a machine that came across all these records from Hancock, letters he'd written from his records about his company, which sort of presented him.
He was in a lot of ways Goodyear's precise opposite. He was an excellent businessman. He was fastidious. He was well organized and Goodyear was none of those things. And, a lot of that came out in these documents that I found in the basement of the London Science Museum.
And then the other aspect of my research in England was in Trowbridge, England, near the home of Stephen Moulton, who's another character that we haven't discussed, but he was a friend of Goodyear's who brought the samples over that Hancock found and duplicated.
But, the Moulton Company records produced, that I found in Trowbridge, England, a couple of boxes of handwritten Goodyear letters and letters about Goodyear written by his business associates and so forth, that just gave a wealth of insight and detail.
LAMB: The patent, at the time how was the patent regulated in this country or in England for that matter and what is it?
SLACK: Regulated in?
LAMB: Who decided that somebody would get a patent?
SLACK: Well, the U.S. Patent Office, and as I say patent infringement was rampant but you did have recourse and that's where the Great India Rubber case came from.
LAMB: Yes, but go back to the fact that he didn't get the patent in Great Britain.
LAMB: But he did get the patent in the United States. Who decides that?
SLACK: Oh, well each country has its own patent office, and what happened in England was Hancock had seen these samples, decided to reverse engineer Goodyear's process, and it was extremely foolish on Goodyear's part to have sent these samples over to England without patenting them.
But he made this mistake and Hancock got a hold, reverse engineered, and in England at that time, I'm not certain whether you still can, but you could apply for a six-month sort of tentative patent, which would give you protection even though you hadn't got the formula down exactly. You could file for this and get protection for six months.
So, Hancock filed for that even though he hadn't fully unlocked the secrets and a matter of a few weeks after that, Goodyear filed for a British patent, but by that time Hancock was already protected. Then in the ensuing six months, Hancock was able to further protect a process and came through with the patent.
And, in England, there are sort of two different approaches to patents in England versus the United States, and in England the issue is not necessarily who was the first to come up with the idea, it's who was the first to file for the patent. And, in the United States, it's who came up with the idea first.
So, it's a very significant difference and I think Americans tend to think yes, of course, credit should be given to whoever came up with the idea, but there's a very logical reason for the British system as well, which is that proving who came up with an idea first can be a very difficult process.
LAMB: In the end, how did Charles Goodyear die at age 60?
SLACK: He died on the way to visit his daughter, who was herself dying. It's one of the tragic parts of the Goodyear story. He was living in Washington, got news that his daughter was ill in Connecticut, and even though Goodyear himself was in terrible shape, he got on the boat and took this rough voyage and got as far as New York and his son-in-law met him and gave him the news that his daughter had died. And, I think this broke whatever remaining spirit he had and he essentially collapsed and was taken to a New York hotel and died.
LAMB: Your next book?
SLACK: My next book I'm very excited about. It's about a woman named Hetty Green who was sort of the first female tycoon of Wall Street. She turned a whaling inheritance of a couple of million dollars into a fortune of $100 million during the gilded age, at a time when women weren't allowed to vote, and went sort of toe-to-toe with the captains of the gilded age, and that book is going to be published. I just have gotten an agreement with Echo Press, and that book is going to be published in 2004.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book, the title "Nobel Obsession" about the discovery of rubber, and on the cover is Thomas Hancock and Charles Goodyear. Thank you very much Charles Slack.
SLACK: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed it.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2002. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.