NOBLE OBSESSION: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century

Charles Slack, Author . Hyperion/Theia $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7868-6789-9

Like crude oil, cotton and plutonium, rubber is on the short list of raw materials that suddenly yielded transformative commercial benefits. The turning point was the 1839 discovery of vulcanization, whereby the heated addition of sulfur permits rubber to retain its shape regardless of temperature. Without sulfur, rubber melts or cracks when exposed to heat or cold. Goodyear was the implacable, obsessed true believer who made possible "the great shock absorber of the industrial age." Slack (Blue Fairways) ably chronicles the inspirations and intrigues surrounding the miraculous substance, which in its day sparked speculation comparable to the Internet boom. Shrewd and meticulous, British rubber pioneer Hancock receives equal billing, but this is Goodyear's book. Slack is Goodyear's advocate throughout, judiciously slicing through the self-serving arguments of Goodyear's adversaries. Countless setbacks, massive debt and perpetual destitution were unable to dent Goodyear's faith in rubber—by all accounts, his wife, Clarissa, was blessed with an otherworldly patience. With his "debilitating lack of business sense" and an "almost superhuman capacity to endure," only Goodyear was dogged enough to stumble upon vulcanization. Sadly, his discovery brought not wealth but lengthy legal battles to establish proper credit, which he eventually secured. Slack's portrait of Goodyear is frequently touching, but the book loses focus in its final chapters. This is generally a fascinating portrait of the transitional period in America's progress from farmland to factory—and, eventually, to freeway. (Aug.)

Forecast: Like Richard D. Korman's The Goodyear Story (Forecasts, Mar. 11), Slack's book may attract only a small audience: Industrial Age historians and those with an interest in inventors.

Reviewed on: 06/10/2002
Release date: 08/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 274 pages - 978-0-7868-8856-6
Compact Disc - 978-0-7366-9236-6
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