Tears of the tree. The story of rubber - a modern marvel

Tears of the tree. The story of rubber - a modern marvel 
John Loadman 
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press | 2005 | 336pp | ?19.99 (HB) | ISBN 0198568401 
Reviewed by Carol Stanier 

The ancient Mayans used it in their religious rituals; we use it today in everything from delicate medical devices and contraceptives to supersonic aircraft tyres and roads. Tears of the tree forces us to consider the question of what life would be like without natural rubber. 

The book can be divided into two halves, the first of which details the sometimes bloody history of rubber since six million BC and the horrific consequences on human lives of mankind’s quest for more functional materials. This section is littered with potted life histories of many of the eccentric characters who contributed to the now widespread use of vulcanised rubber, from King Leopold II of Belgium to the luckless and sickly Charles Goodyear who gave his name to a well-known rubber company, but spent much of his life in prison or embroiled in litigation. These asides add greatly to the depth of the book and make the story a much more human one. 

The second half of the book covers the development of rubber processing technology, and the chemistry and properties of natural and synthetic rubbers. Unlike the first half, which can be read by anyone with an interest in socio-economic or political history, this part of the book does contain technical terms which may be off-putting to some readers. Nevertheless the main points can be understood without a chemical training (indeed, only one figure contains chemical structures). 

The final chapter is concerned with reuse and recycling of rubber. Loadman points out depressingly that in the US alone there are two to three billion tyres in landfill. More promisingly, natural rubber is a renewable resource whose production by plants actually helps to remove carbon dioxide. We may look forward to a renewed interest in natural rubber and hope that the new era will be less bloody than the last!