History of Rubber
 

The rubber tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, originally comes from the rain forests of Brazil and South America. Rubber had been used for generations by indigenous Amazon tribes. It has been discovered that the Ancient Mesoamericans had a ball game using rubber balls and the Mayans also made a type of temporary rubber shoe by dipping their feet into a latex mixture. But it was not until 1839, when Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped rubber and sulphur on a hot stovetop causing it to char like leather yet remain plastic and elastic, that the first industrial application for rubber was discovered. Vulcanisation is a refined version of this process.

Wild rubber or Hevea trees were widely dispersed and the cost of collection of natural rubber was high. This led to efforts to find more efficient ways of growing and collecting rubber. Due to rubber seeds being rich in oil and latex, it was hard for the seeds to survive the arduous Atlantic crossing. An English planter named Henry Wickham acting for the British Government, in 1876 collected 70,000 seeds and shipped them to England. A few seeds survived the journey and were germinated at the Tropical Herbarium in Kew Gardens, London later that year.

In 1877, germinated seedlings were sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to be nurtured and grown. From Colombo seedlings were sent to Singapore and Malaysia. Initially the prospects were grim with many false starts. The success of tea and coffee in these areas was another obstacle to persuade planters to adopt rubber.

In 1895, Henry Ridley from the Singapore Botanical Garden was able to convince two coffee growers to test plant two acres of rubber. The trees grew strongly and the success of rubber plantations had begun. Also in Singapore the technique of tapping a rubber tree was developed. Previously the rubber tree was felled to collect the latex. With the invention of the automobile in the late 19th century, the rubber boom began. By 1905 more than 300,000 hectares of rubber was growing in Ceylon and Malaysia.

Though natural rubber was threatened with the invention of synthetic rubber in the mid 20th century, today it was recaptured nearly 40 percent of the market. This is mainly due to the widespread adoption of the radial tire, which can not be produced with synthetic rubber, and the high world oil prices. Today, Sri Lanka has an area of over 122,000 hectares of rubber plantation and produces 129,000 metric tons of latex annually.

 
 
 
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