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history of rubber

Latex, the source used to make natural rubber, has been making its debut since the heyday of the ancient Mayan civilization, almost 3,500 years ago (1600 B.C.). Used initially in Mayan rubber ball production, latex was not successfully applied to flooring until well into the 19th century. Prior to these attempts, latex in rubber form was popularly used for erasers, hammers, waterproof boots, tubes and jars.

The first attempts to make rubber floor tiles date back as early as the 13th century, but with little to no success. It wasn't until the 1830s when inventors Charles Goodyear and Nathaniel Hayward learned how to combine gum plastic, sulfur and plant sap (latex) to create the rubber we know and use today. This process (named "vulcanization" after the Roman god of fire, Vulcan) produces a material more durable and more resilient than its rubber ancestors.

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Where does rubber come from?

The latex used in natural rubber production is actually sap that can be found in certain plants and trees, including lettuce and dandelions. At present, the primary source of latex is generated from the Pará rubber tree.

Latex is white and milky in appearance, has an elastic consistency, and is removed from the tree through a process called "rubber tapping". During this process, cuts are made into the bark of the tree where the latex is stored (latex vessels). The vessels are tapped in such a way so as not to disturb the tree's growth. The latex then drips down into buckets which are tied to the tree underneath the incisions.

Just two centuries ago, the Para rubber tree was exclusive to the Amazon Rainforest. It wasn't until the 1870s when rubber tree seeds were brought to India to help establish the first commercial rubber plantations. Today, rubber tapping methods are also commonly practiced in Liberia and Brazil, with Asia as the predominant source of natural rubber production.

Synthetic Rubber

Synthetic rubber was created by German chemists in 1935 in response to a deficiency in latex resources during World War II. Since Germany could not import latex at this time, they were forced to create an artificial alternative. Japan and the United States followed Germany's lead and quickly developed their own synthetic rubber types. War machines, space devices and nuclear weapons call for the use of synthetic rubber, making it one of the most important materials of the past century.

Synthetic rubber is unlike natural rubber in the fact that it's made of artificial materials and is non–recyclable. Most synthetic rubber types produced today are made with petroleum, a non–renewable natural resource.

Rubber Floors Today

The rubber made by the Mayans, while innovative for the time, was somewhat basic in form and function. Since then, scientists and inventors have discovered ways to manipulate latex with other materials and processes to create a variety of rubber types.

Despite technological advances with rubber in the early 19th century, it wasn't until the 1950s that rubber was used as a flooring material. In fact, the first major recorded rubber flooring installation was in a Frankfurt, Germany airport in 1969. Since then, rubber has found its way into gyms, airports and facilities around the world. Its growing popularity on the home front has led to the development of eye–pleasing rubber designs and imitative patterns to suit many living spaces.

Like carpet, rubber flooring comes in either roll or tile form. This makes rubber one of the easiest floors to install and can be perfect as a do–it–yourself (DIY) project.