History of rubber latex and toy balloon

Written by  Guido Van Rossen



The water proofing and elastic properties of various rubber producing plants were discovered by native American cultures, the Aztecs or earlier mesoamericans, and South American tribes.

The Aztecs and Mayans bled natural rubber latex from the Hevea brasiliensis trees in the local forests, formed the junk into balls, and played the Mesoamerican ball game with the resulting bouncy balls. The losers were sometimes ritually executed. Those balls cannot have lasted much longer than the losing players. Uncured (curing or vulcanization, a process of treating rubber with sulphur at great heat to improve elasticity and strength or to harden them ) natural rubber turns very smelly within a few days as it starts to rot.

Rubber Tapping RowsRubber-tree-hevea-natural

Another latex, of the sapodilla plant is also the source of chicle, the chewing gum of the Aztecs.

Natural rubber first arrived in Europe, when Christopher Columbus sailed back from the West Indies with the first rubber balls. The arrival of these rubber balls in Spain in 1496 is the first known presence of natural rubber in Europe and it was said of them that there was ‘nothing comparable in the world to the way that the balls bounced’. Previous balls had been made from stuffed leather, so there was indeed little comparison! Its first use in latex form was the discovery by the Spaniards, to its ability to waterproof fabrics. However since  1615, there was no means of stabilizing the latex, the white sap of rubber producing plants, and a thriving fabric proofing industry sprung up in Mexico with the treated fabric being exported.

Mentioned by Spanish and Portuguese writers in the 16th century, reports about rubber were made (1736–1751) to the French Academy of Sciences. In later years, rubber was used only for elastic bands and erasers, and these were made by cutting up pieces imported from Brazil.

Joseph Priestley (England) is credited with the discovery c.1770 of its use as an eraser, also called a “rubber”.
In 1770, Edward Nairne was selling cubes of natural rubber from his shop  in London. The cubes, meant to be erasers, sold for the astonishingly high price of 3 shillings per half-inch cube.
The first rubber factory in the world was established near Paris in 1803, the first in England by Thomas Hancock in 1820.

waterproof-coating-rubber-MackintoshFrom the early days to the mid-19th century, rubber was a novelty material, but it did not find much application in the industrial world. It was used first as erasers, and then as medical devices for connecting tubes and for inhaling [medicinal] gases. With the discovery that rubber was soluble in ether, it found applications in waterproof coatings, notably for shoes and soon after this, the rubberised Mackintosh coat became very popular.

Nevertheless, most of these applications were in small volumes and the material did not last long. The reason for this lack of serious applications was the fact that the material was not durable, was sticky and often rotted and smelled bad because it remained in its uncured state.

In Europe in 1818 Charles Macintosh also discovered waterproofing. In his case, as an industrial chemist in Glasgow, he was seeking ways to exploit the waste products of the new coal gasification process. A medical student by the name of James Syme discovered that coal tar naphtha was a good solvent for rubber and Macintosh’s skill came in using this rubber solution as a waterproofing layer between to fabrics. Hence the ‘Macintosh’.

Close on Macintosh’s new process came Thomas Hancock’s discovery of mastication in 1820. Hancock was using thin rings of rubber for elastic fastenings for gloves, shoes and stockings, and observed that fresh cut edges would perfectly unite. Since he had much waste, it occurred to him that if these pieces of rubber were minced up very small, the amount of fresh cut edges would be greatly increased and by heat and pressure might unite sufficiently for some purposes. Hancock thus developed his ‘Pickle’ or wooden masticator. This was made from a cylinder of wood studded with teeth surrounded by a wooden frame also with teeth. Hancock found that the effort to shred the rubber did not decrease with time but increased, and finally gave a homogeneous ball of rubber when he opened his machine. Later models were properly engineered and Hancock used his ‘pickle’ to supply Macintosh’s factory. He kept his process secret, but was forced to patent it in 1837.

goodyear-originIn this post-mastication/pre vulcanisation period, the rubber industry grew in Great Britain and a whole range of applications for rubber were developed covering whole spectra of items from cushions and mattresses through  hoses for beer engines and fire engines, to shoes and even early tyres. However, whilst rubber products were suitable in Britain with its relatively mild and wet climate, this was not so true in the United States. Here excessive high temperatures or cold made Macintoshes and related products either sticky or rigid, resulting in loss of confidence in the US rubber industry and many factories were closed down. This failure of rubber to meet these temperature changes made Charles Goodyear seek modifications to it to avoid this defect. He tried a variety of chemicals and processes including magnesia, boiling in lime, bronze powder and nitric acid. It was actually a Nathaniel Hayward who first introduced Goodyear to sulphur in 1838. However, Goodyear fell upon hard times both financially and domestically, so it was not until 1841 that he accidentally over-heated a mixture of rubber, sulphur, and white lead, which led to the discovery of vulcanisation, and a rubber, which did not harden in winter and soften in summer. Goodyear patented his invention on December 6th, 1842. Hancock, to whom the discovery of vulcanisation is also ascribed, came into the picture via a William Brockendon (who is thought to have coined the name ‘vulacnization’). Public opinion in the US was still hostile to rubber, so Goodyear entrusted his idea to a Stephen Moulton who was returning to England to take his improved rubber to the new prospering Macintosh Company.
Somehow William Brockendon obtained samples of Goodyear’s rubber and passed them to Hancock, who deduced from the bloom that sulphur was present. Thomas Hancock then discovered that strips of rubber immersed in molten sulphur changed character, and patented the process in November 1843, only a few weeks before Goodyear’s’ belated English patent.


The British rubber industry thus grew still further with the advent of vulcanisation. Hancock recognized the need to establish plantations outside South America where there was poor management, appalling conditions and leaf blight. He also saw that such trees could give financial return. He therefore approached Sir John Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens with his idea, and so the Wickham legend was born. The stories of Wickham secretly stealing seeds from the Amazon are wholly untrue.
In fact, Henry Wickham was simply the right man in the right place at the right time.
Sir John Hooker took up Hancock’s idea and commissioned Henry Wickham (later Sir Henry) who was there at the time, to collect the seeds and ship them to Kew for £10 per 1000. The collection of the seeds was with the agreement of the local authorities and in 1876 ; 70000 seeds were sent to Kew. Of these 1900 germinated and the seedlings were shipped to Colombo, Ceylon where 90% are reputed to have survived. Some 25 seedlings went onto Singapore and some of these up to Malaysia, as it is known today. Thus virtually all of the rubber trees in the Far East are derived from the seeds collected by Sir Henry Wickham, and some of those original trees are still alive in Sri Lanka to this day.

The other highly significant development was the discovery of tapping techniques by Henry Ridley. The only known way in South America in the 1850s of collecting the latex from the tree was to cut it down and slash it’s bark to drain out the white milky liquid. Ridley was the Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888-1911. It was he who developed early forms of today’s tapping techniques, studied the effects of daily/alternate day tapping and best age to tap, and saw the importance of morning tapping. Thus the rubber producing industry grew in the Far East to meet the increasing demand for natural rubber in the West.


1st pneumatic tyre factory-Dunlop

The demand for rubber had grown quite significantly following John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tyre in 1888. Whilst steam vehicles were too heavy for these, the early petrol cars were not, and the Michelin Brothers completed the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux car race on a vehicle fitted with pneumatic tyres in the early days of motoring tyres could cost $100 and cover only 750 kilometres. By the 1920’s, the cost was down to $30 and expected mileage raised to 21000 kilometres.
Aircraft tyres were first marketed around 1910, but the first pneumatic truck tyres did not appear until 1917 almost 30 years after Dunlop’s invention.

1st pneumatic tyre factory-Dunlop-2

In the 19th century wild rubber was harvested in South and Central America and in Africa; most of it came from the rubber tree, Hevea Brasilliensis, of the Amazon basin. Natural rubber (caoutchouc) is obtained from various plants, as a latex, mostly   white in colour. Congo forests were rich in a latex-producing vine, a latex exported at that time. The rubber tree, Hevea Brasilliensis, is the most economical source for latex today. Currently, the country of Maylasia is the world’s largest producer of natural Latex.


During World War I, Germany made a synthetic rubber, but it was too expensive for peacetime use. In 1927 a less costly variety was invented. German scientists developed a synthetic rubber, whose properties are close to those of natural rubber, just prior to World War II. When importation of natural rubber from the East Indies was cut off during World War II, the United States began large-scale manufacture of synthetic rubber.

The first rubber balloons were made by Professor Michael Faraday in 1824 for use in his experiments with hydrogen at the Royal Institution in London. `The caoutchouc is exceedingly elastic’, he wrote in the Quarterly Journal of Science the same year. `Bags made of it…have been expanded by having air forced into them, until the caoutchouc was quite transparent, and when expanded by hydrogen they were so light as to form balloons with considerable ascending power….’ Faraday made his balloons by cutting round two sheets of rubber laid together and pressing the edges together. The tacky rubber welded automatically, and the inside of the balloon was rubbed with flour to prevent the opposing surfaces joining together.

Vulcanized toy balloons, which unlike the earlier kind were unaffected by changes in temperature, were first manufactured by J.G. Ingram of London in 1847 and can be regarded as the prototype of modern toy balloons.”


In 1931 a engineer from New England named Neil Tillotson was in search to make inner tubes from raw latex. For fun, he shaped a cat’s head from a cardboard and dipped it in a liquid latex. After drying he inflated the little bag and much to his surprise he had made a “cat balloon”, complete with ears. He produced about 2000 of these balloons and sold them on the street corner at Boston’s annual Patriot’s Day Parade that year.

The first manufacture of balloons in the United States came in 1907.

In 1912, for the first time a balloon was manufactured that wasn’t round.

From “Manual of Balloon Modeling, Vol. 1, An Encyclopedic Series” by Val Andrews, 1981, Magico Magazine, NYC : I have found the art of balloon modeling a joy to watch since I first saw it done by Wally Boag in the early ‘fifties. But I understand that “Windy Blow” was performing the art in England as early as 1945. Both Jay Marshall and Tommy Windsor name one H.J. Bonnert of Scranton, PA, as the “daddy of them all.”
It seems that Mr. Bonnert performed a modeling act with balloons at a Pittsburgh Magicians’ Convention way back in 1938!…. As far as modeling from one long balloon is concerned, Windy Blow claims to have done this in 1945, and he certainly published a one-balloon animal with details in Max Andrew’s Magic Magazine in February, 1953. At least this proves wrong the generally held view that one-balloon animals were originated as late as 1960, and in the United States.

Silver-metallized-balloonsIn the late 1970’s, silver metalized balloons were developed for the New York City Ballet.These balloons are commonly called Mylar.

The toy balloon remains very must in demand on the world’s scene. A balloon which abound in colour and leads to excitement at private parties, fairs, carnivals, circuses, store sales, trade expositions, and at any other place that people gather for relief from work and routine.


Written by Guido Van Rossen from the European Ballon & Party Council

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Bibliography :
See P. W. Allen, Natural Rubber and the Synthetics (1972); M. Morton, Rubber Technology (3d ed. 1987).

From The Book of Firsts by Patrick Robertson, Bramhall House, NY, 1978: