history of science

Watch: The humble rubber band has a very curious history (and that's not stretching things too far)

For many years, there was just rubber. No bands.

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It’s easy to get, affordable and fairy strong. The rubber band can be used as a playful weapon, it can help keep long hair off your face, and generally brings chaos to lives in disarray.

Did you know that rubber bands were officially patented less than two centuries ago, though? But that doesn’t mean they aren’t much older.

Researchers discovered recently that Mesoamerican folks were already making rubber around 3,000 years ago. They could create sturdy objects with it, ranging from sandals to balls and even jewellery.

A little bit of confusion and several centuries later, the famed British chemist Joseph Priestley (who also discovered oxygen) realised that this material so many people had been obsessed with could easily erase pencil marks from paper, thereby inventing the extremely useful writing tool known as the eraser, and named it “rubber”.

The trajectory that the material took soon afterwards had little to do with rubber bands, though.

While Englishman Thomas Hancock managed to mass-produce rubber in 1819, and even worked out a way to put the waste rubber to good use with his own designs, he had not realised the practicality of rubber bands yet. Over the next few years, he did successfully turn rubber into a commercial product.

Meanwhile, American engineer Charles Goodyear discovered his vulcanisation process after several experiments. The material he came up with was hard, elastic and strong. By 1844, he had perfected the process and taken out patents for it in America.

The conflict began when he tried to take the process abroad, when he realised that Hancock had patented a similar method in 1843. After a long court battle, Hancock emerged the winner.

While rubber strips began to be used to tie bundles of material together in factories, it was a man named William Spencer from Alliance, Ohio, USA, who made rubber bands a household item in 1923. He cut spare rubber pieces into circular strips. Why? He wanted to wrap newspapers with these bands to prevent them from blowing across his and neighbours’ lawns.

Strange beginnings, by any standards, but soon afterwards the product, well, stretched into becoming a very useful item of everyday use.

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