Little known is that the history of the rubber hose is also the history of discovering and producing latex for countless industrial uses, large and small, across nearly five centuries. Now, more than 4 million tons of natural rubber and 7 million tons of synthetic rubber are produced throughout the world. But before our current age of mass production, rubber was known to indigenous peoples in the Americas, especially in the Amazon, prior to the entrance of Europeans in the fifteenth century.
Who knew that before our modern age shoes, balls, and handmade waterproof buckets were three utilitarian objects crafted from rubber? Later by the eighteenth century, interest in the properties of latex by one Charles de la Condamine in Peru led to the first scientific report on the subject, ushering in our modern fascination and scientific experimentation with the raw material. Around the same time, Pierre Joseph Macquer of Paris, author of the first chemical dictionary, followed up on Codamine’s research, discovering that the substance could be fashioned into tubes.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, that rubber and especially the advent of rubber hoses for broad use in firefighting, the automobile industry, and the medical field came to prominence. 1821 saw the first patent for fire hoses by James Boyd of Boston, Massachusetts. That first behemoth weighed nearly eighty-five pounds but replaced leather hoses of yore, which had been prone to splitting and cracking under intense water pressure. Boyd’s invention was made with a cotton web lined with rubber, a rudimentary method with basic principals that are still broadly applicable now.
Only twenty years later, when B.F. Goodrich discovered how to vulcanize rubber in the 1840s, helping it to withstand extreme temperatures, he expanded the possibilities of rubber as a protective surface and vessel. In the next five years, the rubber band was also patented. Only years later, the rubber industry boomed in Brazil where rubber trees were extracted of their raw latex. To accommodate this growth, their seeds were sent to Africa and Southeast Asia by way of London where large scale production commenced and still carries on today. Throughout, the material had been used in making pneumatic tires and textured tread for horse-drawn carriages. As we now know, cars adopted this same technology, which helped passengers from feeling the vibrations of the road.
As with many other industries, war produced the circumstances for an even wider use of raw substances such as latex. Blood transfusions with latex tubes arose with WWI alongside oxygen breathing systems in aeronautics, whereas naval boats used the rubber hose for fueling at sea by WWII. Hydraulic systems large and small, from heavy machinery to dishwashers, continue to rely on the rubber hose for transporting pressurized fluids, making rubber components ubiquitous in a plethora of machinery. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it is one of the most important and diversely-used materials of our age.