By Charles Slack
The American love affair with happy endings extends beyond movies, television, and romance novels. We love happy endings in our real-life characters, too, including our discoverers and inventors.
This persistent belief in the end of the rainbow, often in the face of hard evidence to the contrary, may be our brightest national trait. Some Europeans like to think of us as foolishly optimistic to the point of naivete, and yet it is precisely our belief in the reality of happy endings that keeps the American dream, more than a quarter of the way through our third century, as alluring as ever. Pessimists rarely shock the world with things that are bold, fresh, and new.
Yet in this optimistic land, happy endings don’t always come about, even when one’s strongest sense of justice demands one. Sometimes dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance yield more ambiguous results. Charles Goodyear, the 19th century American inventor, occupies a sort of gray zone between success and failure. His remarkable achievement changed millions of lives for the better. And yet he paid such a high personal price that his life story asks an inescapable question: Was it worth it?
What first attracted me to Goodyear was the difference between what most people assume to be his life story and the way his life actually played out. Before I happened across his name in an encyclopedia about three years ago, I assumed that Goodyear started the tire company that bears his name, made a pile of money, and died fat and happy in Akron, Ohio.
In fact, Goodyear lived a life of almost unbelievable suffering, ill health, and poverty. He performed many of his experiments while sitting in debtor’s prison. His two wives and 13 children endured equally terrible conditions, and more than half of his offspring died before Goodyear’s own death at 60 in 1860. At the lowest point in his quest, Goodyear sold his children’s schoolbooks for five dollars to buy more supplies.
Goodyear had nothing to do with Akron, or with the hugely successful tire company. Two brothers, Frank and Charles Seiberling, started it 38 years after the inventor’s death, and named it in honor of him. No member of the Goodyear family has ever held a significant position with the company.
Born in 1800, Goodyear was a failed merchant and inveterate tinkerer from New Haven, Connecticut. His great contribution to the world was this: He took raw rubber, a substance that, for all of its promise, had flopped because of its susceptibility to heat and cold, and he transformed it into the ubiquitous material that to this day is a part of almost everything that defines modern life. Without vulcanized rubber, we would have no automobiles, airplanes, electrical industry (rubber was crucial to insulating wires), plumbing, or telephones.
His process, known as vulcanization, involved mixing liquefied rubber with sulfur and then heating the mixture. The process took five years of poverty, frustration, dead ends, and ridicule to discover, by accident, over a hot stove. Then, several more years of even greater suffering went by before he perfected the process and, finally, presented it to the world.
In fiction or movies, this is where the happy ending comes in, with heaps of praise and redemption sugared with copious amounts of cash. But in Goodyear’s case, the years after he perfected vulcanization were almost as tumultuous as the ones before. Thomas Hancock, a British inventor, got hold of some Goodyear samples, reinvented them, and beat Goodyear to the all-important British patent office by a matter of weeks. In America, a cad named Horace Day made a profession of ripping Goodyear off at every turn.
Although at last he did manage to secure his reputation and beat the most egregious infringers in court, Goodyear died $200,000 in debt. Much of this suffering he brought upon himself. He was a brilliant inventor and one of the worst businessmen in history. Even when fame finally arrived, Goodyear never experienced luxury commensurate with his gift to the world. His family, who by all rights ought to have enjoyed millions, struggled along in genteel poverty. And so the Goodyear story brings us back to that question: Was it worth it?
One longs to ask this question of Clarissa, Goodyear’s first wife. She bore perhaps the greatest burden, trying to hold her family together while her obsessed husband commandeered her teacups, bowls, and oven to test foul-smelling rubber concoctions. Unfortunately, this patient woman left hardly any records behind to indicate her state of mind.
The answer, of course, comes down to a matter of personal choice and values. Tellingly, Goodyear himself rarely doubted whether the sufferings he endured and inflicted upon others were justified. A deeply religious man, he saw his life as a test of his faith. Rubber is so commonplace today as to seem almost mundane. But in Goodyear’s day rubber--springy, waterproof, and unlike anything else--was widely seen as a miracle substance. And Goodyear saw his own journey to rid rubber of its debilitating flaws as nothing short of a holy mission. His greatest fear, one that consumed him throughout his adult life, was that he would die before he was able to perfect his invention and give it to the world.
While he never got rich, he knew at least by the time of his death that his gift was secure. Goodyear was no saint or aesthete. He dreamed of riches as much as the next man. His life was an endless process of deluding himself into believing that his ship was about to come in, when in fact that ship was stuck permanently on the far horizon. The satisfaction that he derived from his achievement may not totally have erased his financial disappointments, but it came close.
His second wife, Fanny, recalled shortly after his death that his final months had been marked by a sort of internal peace that had so long eluded him. She called it "a marked ripening for glory." Goodyear had, she said, "a growing gentleness and forbearance, an increased spirituality of mind, and a superiority to earthly care and anxiety."