Nearly 65 years ago, as a young man,
I left my boarding house on Quarrier Street and took a bus out Washington
Street, then on Roxalana Road past Dunbar to the lovely hamlet of
Institute. I was practicing a little chemical engineering to help
start a large rubber plant in early 1943.
When we arrived at the plant site, we were amazed. The huge place
was alive with several thousand craftsmen constructing buildings,
installing equipment and miles of pipelines. It was a shock to be
thrown into this massive project, but also very exciting. The Institute
plant was the first in the American Synthetic Rubber Program to reach
the startup stage.
Few of us at the time realized how important this plant was for the
American economy and the war effort. The program created a huge industry
in an unbelievably short period. It was the outstanding chemical engineering
project in World War II. Without its success, the war would not have
When Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, the United States and
its allies lost 95 percent of their source of natural rubber. The
stockpile in this country was barely a year's supply. Fortunately,
the design and plans for a huge synthetic rubber industry were well
The Baruch Committee in 1941 had reported
to President Roosevelt: "Of all critical and strategic materials,
rubber is the one which presents the greatest threat to the safety
of our nation and the success of the Allied cause. If we fail to secure
a large new rubber supply quickly, our war effort and domestic economy
Roosevelt took immediate action, setting up a government agency called
the Rubber Reserve Co. Top executives from the chemical and rubber
industries were called up to direct it. Outstanding scientists from
the major rubber companies and 11 universities were assigned to do
advanced research on synthetic polymers. Their studies increased understanding
of the polymerization process.
Before our entry into the war against
Germany, Standard Oil had a relationship with I.G. Farbin, a large
German company doing development work on synthetic rubber made from
butadiene and styrene. Standard Oil traded its process know-how for
making aviation gasoline for the German know-how on Buna-S.
The Rubber Reserve Co. asked U.S. Rubber (later Uniroyal), Goodrich,
Goodyear, Firestone and Standard Oil to pool their technology. This
was a historic agreement, wherein bitter competitors joined forces
to share their trade secrets. It was decided that a polymer made from
butadiene and styrene would be the best choice. It was decided to
call the polymer GR-S, for government rubber made from styrene.
The butadiene production facility, run by Carbide, located at Institute,
used grain alcohol as a starting raw material. The alcohol was produced
by fermentation of corn, which kept farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin
busy. The government also asked whisky distillers to produce
alcohol for synthetic rubber, and the country suffered in silence
while whisky was rationed.
After the design was fixed, only nine
months lapsed before the first and largest synthetic rubber plant,
at Institute, was ready for startup. It kept the rubber industry going
full blast, making tires for the military. By the end of 1943, all
the plants were in production. Nearly 200,000 tons were produced in
1943, and in 1944 production rose to 800,000 tons. Later, research
chemists discovered that the quality of the polymer could be improved
greatly if the polymerization was conducted at 5 degrees Celsius,
instead of the previous 50 degrees. This required new cooling systems.
The resulting polymer, called cold rubber, made better-wearing tires.
Today, we have tires that run for 60,000 to 80,000 miles, compared
to natural rubber tires that lasted only 10,000 miles.
In 1955, the government sold all the
GR-S plants to rubber and oil companies, and many of them still are
in operation. The
startup days at Institute were exciting, with thousands of men and
women at new jobs. I enjoyed everything about West Virginia - the
Cap, Andy & Milt banjo music, the beautiful hills, and the lovely
girls. I am proud to have played a part in the famous Institute synthetic