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What is rubber?

Many young people nowadays don't know that natural rubber (latex) comes from a rubber tree. The history of rubber is a fascinating topic and without rubber in our lives in the 21st century we could not survive!

We've just been reading a book written by John Tully from Melbourne, called The Devil's Milk. He has intenstively researched the social dynamics and consequences of rubber over the last 200 years. It's like a Readers Digest Condensed book of key facts and very easy to read.

Rubber, derived from the gum of a tree, has existed since prehistoric times. Even fossils of rubber-producing plants date back almost 3 million years. Crude rubber balls, discovered in ruins of ancient Incan and Mayan civilizations in Central and in South America, are said to be about 900 years old. Natives of Southeastern Asia used rubber, prepared from the "juice" of trees to waterproof their baskets and jars. Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the New World, observed Haitian natives playing with balls made from "the gum of a tree."

Most natural rubber comes from a single species of tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Though native to South America, H. brasiliensis is planted in large plantations in southeast Asia, including Malaysia. The famous Michael Palin recenlty visited Brazil and we personally asked him if he saw any rubber trees. He said he saw a little bit but there are not many rubber trees there now.

On March 17, 1845, the first rubber band was patented by Stephen Perry of London, made from vulcanized rubber.

On June 24, 1844, Charles Goodyear was granted patent #3,633 for vulcanized rubber and of course made rubber tyres.

Ask anyone under 30 the question, "Where does rubber come from?" and you'll get a variety of answers, but not often the correct one. One young man recently asked us if it was from a whale. I think he was thinking blubber, not rubber!

List of things made of rubber:


car, truck, plane tyres,

rubber banks

rubber balls

rubber hose,

rubber boots (gumboots)

rubber stamps

rubber stopper


The Story of Malaysian Natural Rubber

Dalsouple France, normally sources latex supply from the open

market but a large amount would originate from Malaysia.

I found this article and downloaded it from the internet as a freely

available non copyrighted media.

As far as I can ascertain it is quite accurate in it’s information.

Enjoy this educational transcript on how Dalsouple obtains the

material to produce perhaps the finest natural rubber flooring in the

world today- DalNaturel.

Natural rubber is extracted from rubber producing plants, most notably the tree Hevea brasiliensis, which originates from South America. Nowadays, more than 90% of all natural rubber comes from these trees in the rubber plantations of Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and Sri Lanka. The common name for this type of rubber is Para rubber.

The rubber is extracted from the trees in the form of latex. The tree is ‘tapped’; that is, a diagonal incision is made in the bark of the tree and as the latex exudes from the cut it is collected in a small cup. The average annual yield is approximately 2 1⁄2 kg per tree or 450kg per hectare, although special high-yield trees can yield as much as 3000kg per hectare each year.

The gathered latex is strained, diluted with water, and treated with acid to cause the suspended rubber particles within the latex to coagulate. After being pressed between rollers to form thin sheets, the rubber is air (or smoke) dried and is then ready for shipment. 


How the rubber industry began

Of all the wonderful tales brought back by Christopher Columbus in

1496 after his second voyage to the New World, none was

stranger than the tale of a ball, which bounced. The people of Haiti

made these playballs from the gum of a tree.

Although they did not realise it, Columbus and his crew were the

first Europeans to see this unique substance – rubber. It did not

get its name until much later – in 1770, an eminent English

chemist, Joseph Priestley, noted the ability of this substance to

‘rub out’ pencil marks, and ever since it has been called rubber in

the English language. This is curious, because ‘rubbing out’ has

never been an important use of rubber.

In spite of the interest it aroused very little use was made of the

new discovery. This was mainly because no one knew how to

prevent the rubber becoming sticky in summer and brittle in winter.

In the early nineteenth century, all this changed. In 1820, Thomas

Hancock, an Englishman invented a machine, which would soften,

mix and shape rubber. It was then possible to dissolve rubber and

start making useful products. By coating cloth with the rubber

solution it could be made waterproof; the first ‘Mackintosh’ was

made in 1823. Soon after there was another important discovery,

this time by an American. In 1839, Charles Goodyear found by

accident that raw rubber could be improved by heating it with

sulphur. The new material produced, called vulcanized rubber, was

no longer affected by changes in temperature.

As other inventors found uses for rubber the demand grew. Some

of the first products to be made from rubber were hose, conveyor

belts, flooring and footwear – these still use rubber today. In the

middle of the nineteenth century rubber came from South America,

where the hot wet climate suited the wild rubber tree, but it was

very difficult to collect it from the dense jungle. It soon became

obvious that more rubber would have to be grown elsewhere to

meet the demand.

In 1876, Sir Henry Wickham, at the request of the India Office,

collected and shipped from Brazil 70,000 seeds from the wild

rubber tree. These were rushed to Kew Gardens in London and

planted in specially prepared hot-houses. The small number, which

survived, were taken in 1877 to Ceylon and later to Malaysia and

other countries of South-east Asia.

The rubber tree quickly flourished in Malaysia; large areas of

jungle were cut down and planted with rubber trees. Henry

Nicholas Ridley, who was appointed Director of the Singapore

botanic gardens in 1888, was one of the pioneers of those times

and did perhaps more than anybody to encourage planting of this

new crop.

By the end of the nineteenth century there were 2500 hectares of

rubber in Asia. Shortly afterwards Henry Ford started making his

famous motorcar and the demand for rubber – to make tyres –

rocketed. The trees in the South American jungle could not

possibly produce enough rubber and so the new plantations of

Asia found that the world wanted all the rubber they could produce,

and more. By 1910 there were ó million hectares of rubber planted

and the countries of Asia had now become the main suppliers of


With the spread of motoring to every country in the world, even

today’s enormous acreage of rubber (about 6 million hectares in

all) cannot supply enough. There is not enough natural rubber to

go around. Scientists have developed man-made rubbers from

petroleum. These are often mixed with natural rubber. For some

products, however, only natural rubber can be used.

More rubber from better trees

Peninsular Malaysia – comprising 12 of the 14 states in the

Malaysian federation – is among the world’s most important rubber

growing areas. Rubber is also grown in Sabah (formerly North

Borneo) and Sarawak, which, known together as East Malaysia

make up Malaysia.

Altogether Malaysia produces almost 20% of the world’s natural

rubber. A good deal of Malaysia’s rubber (over half) comes from

thousands of privately owned plots of land called small holdings,

which are usually about 2 hectares. The rest is grown on big

estates owned by various companies; each can cover over a

thousand hectares. Altogether, Malaysia has 1.7 million hectares

of rubber.

In recent years most of the older trees have been replaced by

newer varieties which yield up to ten times as much rubber, thanks

to scientific cross-breeding and careful cultivation.

If you were a rubber tapper you would have to get up very early in

the morning, as the rubber latex flows more easily before the heat

of the day begins. Latex is a milk-like fluid contained in tiny cells

situated beneath the outer bark of the rubber tree. The latex is

obtained from the tree by tapping that is cutting away a thin

shaving of the bark about 2 mm thick. This cut, which is made with

a special tapping knife, pierces the cells and the latex oozes slowly

out to a collecting cup placed below. The tapper needs great skill

with his knife as the tree is easily damaged if the bark is cut too


In two or three hours the flow of latex ceases. By the time the

tapper has cut his last tree for the day the latex collecting cup of

the first is ready to be emptied into a larger container. When all the

cups have been emptied the full containers are taken to the

factory, where the latex is turned into raw rubber.

Rubber trees are not tapped until about five years after planting; by

then they can produce enough rubber to make tapping worthwhile.

If you were working on your own smallholding you would probably

take your latex to a group processing centre to process the latex

into sheets or sell it to Mardec, a government agency which

processes rubber into technically specified form. The big estates

have their own machines. After processing it is sent to one of

Malaysia’s ports to be shipped overseas. Malaysian rubber goes to

every country in the world and is recognized to be the best.

Rubber in industry and the home

Rubber is elastic, flexible, airtight, watertight, long lasting and

insulating, to mention just a few of its properties. There are

thousands of products, which take advantage of these useful

properties. Some will be familiar to you, others less so because

many rubber products do their work unseen.

Most of the world’s rubber is used in tyres, ever since John Boyd

Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre in 1888. A tyre is not just a

hunk of rubber, it is skillfully designed to do its job and it is made,

not only of rubber, but also of other materials; fibres, steel and

various chemicals. Some tyres use man-made rubber but for the

toughest kinds of tyre only natural rubber will do. Aircraft tyres are

a good example; these have to take tremendous punishment

during landings and take-offs. They get very hot, hotter than boiling

water, and natural rubber is always used to stand up to these

conditions. The same is true for giant lorry tyres. The tyres on your

family car have an easier life and they will have a lot of man- made

rubber in them but they will also use some natural rubber in those

parts of the tyre where it is needed.

As well as tyres, modern cars and lorries use a lot of rubber in

other ways. Engines are mounted on rubber to cut down vibration.

Some lorries and cars have rubber springs instead of steel ones.

Then there are radiator hoses, windscreen wiper blades, car mats,

seals and all sorts of small components such as bushes and

gaskets hidden away under the bonnet or in the suspension.

Many motorway bridges are mounted on large blocks of natural

rubber to allow the bridge to expand and contract when the

temperature goes up or down. Some buildings are now built on

similar rubber blocks to help stop vibration, particularly if they are

near railways. In this and many other ways rubber helps to make

life quieter and more comfortable.

Throughout the industry, rubber does all kinds of different jobs.

Hose to carry liquids; conveyor belts to carry coal, gravel, ores;

seals for machinery and so on. The list is endless.

In everyday life you make more use of rubber than you perhaps

realise. Did you know that the adhesive on transparent sticky tape

is made of rubber? More obvious, many sports balls are made of

rubber and the carpets and rugs in your home may have a foam

rubber backing underneath. Your shoes may have rubber soles,

and, if you travel on London’s underground, you may like to know

that the escalator handrail is made of rubber and the trains have

rubber springs.

Methods Of Latex Rubber Tapping

All natural rubber originates in the Hevea tree, and it starts its

journey when the tree is tapped. Trees are rarely tapped more

often than once every two days.

A tapper starts the trek around the plantation before dawn. At each

tree a sharp knife is used to shave off the thinnest possible layer

from the intact section of bark. The cut must be neither too deep,

nor too thick. Either will reduce the productive life of the tree. This

starts the latex flowing, and the tapper leaves leaves a little cup

underneath the cut.

In ordinary circumstances, this latex will normally coagulate into a

lump in the bottom of the cup, called 'cup lump.' If the plantation

manager wants to make latex, then the tapper must add a

stabilising agent to the cup. Usually this is ammonia, which

prevents the latex from coagulating.

The tapper returns a few hours later and collects the stuff in the

cup -- either cup lump or latex. The double round trip usually

finishes at about 2 pm.

FYI (for your information) , the tapper is very often at the bottom of

the educational scale. Many are women; illiteracy is high; pay is

low. Child care and education is rudimentary at best. Living

conditions are quite primitive and latex allergy awareness is

extremely low.

Processing Of Latex - Cup Lump or Liquid Concentrate

If solid rubber is required, the cup lump, together with tree lace (the

remnants of the latex flow from the cut down to the cup) and other

bits and pieces are collected together and processed. That

processing involves quite a lot of heat, which destroys many (but

not necessarily all) of the proteins. It ends up as solid rubber.

Depending on the method of processing and the final purity of the

material, the industry refers to it either as TSR (technically

specified rubber), or sometimes sheet rubber.

When latex is required--which covers about 10 percent of all NR

produced--the material is gathered on the tapper's return journey,

poured into containers and delivered to a processing station where

it is strained and concentrated. At no stage in the process is the

latex heated. This means most of the proteins remain in the latex.

More stabiliser is added and the latex goes into a centrifuge to

remove some of the water, and increase the rubber content of the

latex. After centrifuging, the material is known as latex

concentrate, and contains roughly 60 percent solid rubber and 40

percent other stuff (water, proteins etc.).

This (latex concentrate) is what is used in the dipping process

when making gloves.


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