The Rush For Rubber

January 28, 2012 by Matthew Bellamy

Workers at the Polymer Rubber Corporation plant.

Workers at the Polymer Rubber Corporation plant.

On Dec. 7, 1941, in a co-ordinated strike without equal in the annals of war, the Japanese wrought havoc on units of the United States Pacific Fleet in a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, invaded the Philippines and Hong Kong, assumed control of Saigon and the rest of French Indochina, landed invading forces at two points on the northeast coast of Malaya, and bombed Singapore. Other units headed for key invasion points in Sarawak, North Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. Using bicycles as their principal means of transport through the Malayan rubber plantations, the Japanese advanced swiftly and silently, outwitting and outdistancing the British, Australian and Indian defenders. These co-ordinated attacks gave Japan control of the Indian Ocean and severed the artery of the Allied rubber supply.

N o other loss of an imported commodity caused as much apprehension as did the looming shortage of this strategically important material. “Rubber alone constitutes one of the gravest and most ominous problems in our history,” stated Alan H. Williamson, a one-time Bay Street investment dealer who was put in charge of regulating the use of rubber in Canada following the Japanese attacks. The loss of plantations in the Far East, he declared, “has placed the whole Allied war program in jeopardy.”

Williamson was not exaggerating. Rubber was essential for combat effectiveness. It enhanced reliability by reducing vibration—machinery’s worst enemy. In addition, it made for silence and stealth on the battlefield. No military vehicle could operate without rubber parts; in fact, rubber was used in nearly every military item. A medium-sized tank, for example, used 800 kilograms of rubber, a battleship more than 68 tonnes. Without rubber, therefore, the Allied forces would be unable to continue to wage war against the Axis.

Lab work in the Polymer Rubber Corporation plant.

Lab work in the Polymer Rubber Corporation plant.

To be sure, the war brought shortages of other critical materials. Steel, timber and electricity all became scarce. But these were commodities produced in Canada, so shortages could be overcome by increasing production and rationing available supplies. Rubber, on the other hand, was a strategically vulnerable commodity; about 90 per cent of the world’s supply came from Java, Sumatra, Indochina, the Malay peninsula and the East Indies. “With Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies out of the picture, due to their subjection by the Japanese,” noted C. E. Beland at the Wartime Bureau of Technical Personnel in Ottawa, “the remaining source of crude rubber will scarcely be able to supply eight per cent of the world requirements…. Consequently, we are confronted with a serious problem.”

Canada and its allies only had enough rubber stockpiled to meet their needs for the subsequent 18 months. Thereafter, the Allied war machine would come to a grinding halt. Something had to be done, and fast. “This is a problem,” stated Canada’s dynamic minister of munitions and supply, C. D. Howe, “of historic proportions.”

Clarence Decatur Howe

Clarence Decatur Howe

As the man responsible for ensuring that the nation’s war industries had a sufficient supply of essential raw materials, Howe was in charge of solving Canada’s rubber problem. In late December 1941, he travelled to Washington to meet with his British and American counterparts in an effort to find a solution.

The obvious ideas were quickly ruled out. Establishing a new rubber plantation in a secure, friendly area was impossible for two reasons: First, a tropical environment was necessary—temperatures needed to be consistently high, winds light, and rainfall well-distributed and considerable. Second, even if such a region could be secured—perhaps in Africa or South America—newly planted natural rubber trees wouldn’t be mature enough to produce latex for at least five years. By that time, the Allies would have lost the war.

In theory, other rubber-bearing shrubs and plants, such as milkweed and the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum kok-saghyz), could be used. In early 1942, the botany division of the Department of Agriculture, in co-operation with its various experimental farms, agreed to undertake a systematic survey of Canadian plants to determine which, if any, were “suitably rubber-bearing.” The University of Toronto’s botany department simultaneously began to investigate the fundamental aspects of production, while the National Research Council accepted responsibility for developing extraction methods, and compounding and testing the rubber obtained. While these co-operative research efforts offered a tantalizing measure of encouragement, it was apparent that a viable domestic source of crude rubber was at least several years away. The rubber problem demanded a much more immediate solution.

Construction of the Polymer plant.

Construction of the Polymer plant.

Howe was relieved to learn, therefore, that there was one other potential solution: The various Allied countries could produce their own synthetic rubber, but the idea was extremely risky. The second industrial revolution (1870-1914) had inspired research and development in the synthetic rubber field. At Bonn University, for example, German scientist Otto Wallach produced a synthetic laboratory rubber by treating isoprene with hydrochloric acid. In 1884, British scientist Sir William Tilden repeated the feat, but with an agent that was not obtained from natural rubber. But despite these and other successes, no commercial-scale production resulted at the time or in the near future.

On the eve of the Second World War there was still enormous confusion surrounding synthetic rubber science and technology. In fact, less than one per cent of all the rubber used in North America was in synthetic form. “The actual manufacture of synthetic rubber,” stated one contemporary observer, “would present complications to even such deft broth blenders as Shakespeare’s three witches.”

Despite the obstacles, making and mass producing an artificial substitute for natural rubber appealed to Howe. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Howe had a deep appreciation for the progressive power of science and technology. By applying science, mankind could alter matter and bring new items into productive use. Furthermore, Howe understood that the second global conflict of the 20th century was shaping up to be a war of science, a war in which military supremacy would be determined by the ability to invent and develop new materials and devices.

John R. Nicholson, secretary and managing director of Polymer Corp.

John R. Nicholson, secretary and managing director of Polymer Corp.

On Jan. 21, 1942—just six weeks after the Japanese attacks—Howe authorized the immediate construction of a massive synthetic rubber complex. “The solution of the rubber shortage,” stated the man Howe had put in charge of overseeing the project, J. R. Nicholson, “lies in the speedy production of a large quantity of synthetic rubber.”

To co-ordinate the massive and complicated task of constructing and operating the first fully integrated synthetic rubber plant in the British Empire, Howe employed a familiar instrument: the Crown corporation. Howe was a pragmatist and, in his reading of the Canadian marketplace, there were some situations that simply demanded state intervention, not as a panacea, but to protect or hurry the development of the niche areas of the economy that either lacked capital and technology, or needed the assistance of quasi-public management to get going. Such was the rationale for the establishment of Polymer Corporation.

Work immediately began to design the state-of-the-art plant. Plans called for the construction of an industrial village capable of producing approximately 3.1 million kilograms of synthetic rubber each month. That was the equivalent to the output of 14.4 million natural rubber trees covering 50 hectares in the South Pacific—more than enough to meet Canada’s wartime needs. The huge industrial complex was to have three hectares of permanent buildings, 10 kilometres of sewers, eight kilometres of roads and a complicated mosaic of pipes, conduits, spheres and towers. Ten factories would produce the raw materials—i.e. butadiene, styrene and isobutylene—as well as both types of synthetic rubber—buna-S (general purpose rubber) and butyl rubber (used to make tires). The task was Herculean, and some, even within the federal government, worried that the objective would not be achieved. “Frankly,” Alan Williamson said in the summer of 1942, “I believe it will require almost a miracle to provide the plants to produce synthetic rubber on schedule in Canada….” But Howe had set his course and he was not the type to turn back.

Lab techs test chemicals used in synthetic rubber.

Lab techs test chemicals used in synthetic rubber.

He decided to build the plant in Sarnia, Ont. At the crossroads of the Great Lakes continental economy and as the point of entry for the biggest, most reliable and secure flow of crude oil into Canada from the United States, Sarnia was the ideal location for the new industry. There, on the banks of the broad St. Clair River, the plant would have easy access to the raw materials to produce the rubber and to the markets for the finished product. The river itself would be a natural source of the water needed for the plant’s cooling system. The Imperial Oil refinery next door would supply the required petroleum-cracked gases for the production of butadiene, and would take back residual hydrocarbons. Ethyl-benzene, from which came styrene, could easily be brought in by lake boat from the coke ovens of the Steel Company of Canada at Hamilton and from Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie. In terms of markets, the rubber manufacturing industry was located almost entirely in southern Ontario, where a handful of large American companies that made rubber products had established themselves early in the 20th century.

The year 1942 was tension-filled for those involved with the Polymer project. Overseas, the war had not yet turned in the Allies’ favour. Closer to home, there was great difficulty acquiring materials and equipment to construct the synthetic rubber plant. The priority rating system south of the border, which determined who would get what supplies and when, was slowing the pace of progress at Sarnia. This annoyed Howe, who was continually pressing for news of the ground breaking for the plant. He felt that if Canada did not secure a higher priority rating from the War Production Board, Canada would lose the “race against time.” Without the essential supplies from the United States, synthetic rubber production would remain a flight of fancy and gravely impede the Allied war machine.

Adding to the anxiety was the enormous cost of the project. The $50-million price tag represented the largest single government wartime expenditure. The amount worried even Howe—a man who later supposedly blurted out in the House of Commons, “What’s a million?”

“My difficulty,” Howe informed Polymer’s president, A. L. Bishop, in September 1942, “is that I am at present carrying the responsibility for the largest expenditure of public money involved in any single war project….”

Perhaps this would not have troubled Howe so much if it had not been for the likelihood of disaster if things did not go according to plan. Bluntly put, Howe had committed $50 million of the people’s money to an experimental idea. But despite all this—all the obstacles and potential risk—Howe’s incurable optimism was only outshone by his dogged determination to get things done.

In September 1942, Roger Hatch and his fellow engineers Lee Dougan and Jack Sayre were brought in to expedite materials to build the plant. Hatch was a natural for the job, having paid his way through university by selling Fuller brushes door-to-door on the east coast. Peddling had taught Hatch the basic hustling techniques needed to be successful in business, and he put them to good use. He quickly made friends with the people at Crane Industries in Chicago and persuaded them to send some critical materials Polymer’s way. With the supplies finally in hand, a workforce of 5,579 started piecing the high-tech plant together. These men and women worked unceasingly in all types of weather to complete the job on time. In spite of blizzards, sleet, slush, freezing rain and the intense cold of the winter and spring of 1942-43—one of the worst in the history of Eastern Canada—they maintained their tireless pace.

The construction work proceeded with drill-sergeant regularity and on Sept. 29, 1943, the first producing unit went into operation without a hitch. In February 1944, the final phase of the construction effort was completed when the butyl rubber plant was brought on stream.

The exigencies of war dictated the completion in less than two years of a task that normally might have taken more than five.

Between September 1943 and December 1945, Canadian rubber manufacturers received more than 72,000 tonnes of buna-S rubber and close to 13,000 tonnes of butyl from the Polymer plant. This was enough, Howe informed the House of Commons near the end of the war, to avoid “a shortage, which would have crippled our production program.”

By June 1944, production was at such a high rate that all restrictions on the use of rubber were removed and later in the year exports to the U.S. commenced. By war’s end, synthetic rubber had gained a spectacular record of production and development.

The project was the biggest wartime bet Howe placed. At the time Ottawa undertook the project, no synthetic rubber had been made on the continent outside of laboratories. “We were very much in the dark as to costs,” Howe later recalled, “and it was…a race against time with the possibility of disaster if the project did not turn out well.”

But the gamble paid off. In less than two years, synthetic rubber had come to supply about 90 per cent of Canada’s total rubber requirements. “The best brains in science and business,” Howe declared on the first anniversary of the opening of the plant, “have been used at Polymer to transform an experimental dream into an industrial reality…. Polymer,” the minister continued, emphasizing every word, “has kept Canada in the war.”

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