In the northeast corner of New York, just a few miles from where I grew up, is the village of Rouses Point. Lying directly south of Montreal, it has long provided access for rail shipments to U.S. markets. Where the main highway heading west exits the village is an underpass beneath the rails, so road traffic is not impeded by trains, but it’s a different story within the village, where the tracks cross three streets. I loved it as a young boy when my dad got stuck at one of those crossings, which forced us to sit and watch as sometimes more than a hundred rail cars crawled by — boring for adults, but for a young boy, it was a rare chance to see all sorts of rail cars up close.
Among them were many tanker cars, which — I didn’t know it at the time — resulted from an invention by a little-known North Country man whose work had repercussions around the world. His name was William C. Geer, who, as recently was shared here on Adirondack Almanack, created a golf ball that endured for decades as a professional standard, and a gas mask that helped protect millions of Americans who fought during World War I.
As B. F. Goodrich’s director of research and one of the world’s experts on rubber, Geer was the go-to guy for problem solving. During the company’s 100-year-anniversary celebration in 1970, executives shared historical information with the media, including the Miami (Oklahoma) News-Record, which reported that, “In the early 1920s, an overzealous salesman … turned in an order for the lining of a large steel tank with rubber, something which had never before been done.”
At the time, according to Engineering with Rubber (1949, Walter E. Burton, editor), Goodrich was “looking for a better material from which to make phonograph records.” While considering that issue, Geer was briefed on the salesman’s tank request, sending his research into other areas. While a fellow Goodrich inventor was eventually very successful with the phonograph-record project, Geer’s experiments with bonding rubber to metal also reaped spectacular results.
Creating a system to safely haul acids, corrosives, and other dangerous materials in bulk quantities had perplexed scientists, which in turn prevented many industries from increasing production. Some companies had attempted lining wooden tanks with rubber, but the results weren’t satisfactory. Others used glass, which exhibited some excellent properties but was too fragile. Success was finally achieved in 1924 when a rubber-lined steel rail car was filled with hydrochloric acid and functioned perfectly. Binding the rubber liner to the steel was Geer’s newest discovery, Vulcalock, which the company said, “locks rubber to metal so strongly that the rubber cannot be loosened until it is torn.”
The ramifications of his invention were immense. Twenty-five years later, researchers at Goodrich, who collaborated in the writing of Engineering with Rubber, described the effect of his new adhesive. “The chemical industry was freed from much of its dependence on glass and other fragile containers. In 1924, a standard steel railway tank car lined with acid-resisting crude rubber became the pioneer unit in a new era of chemical transportation. That car remained in service for many years, long enough to see a wholly new industry — the design and applications of rubber linings and coverings — develop within the parent rubber industry. Today, pipes, tanks, vats, and metal vessels of all kinds are being lined with crude and American-made rubbers and rubberlike plastics.”
But that was just one facet of Vulcalock’s value and capabilities. It was proven to be just as effective bonding rubber to itself and many other materials. “This chemically altered crude-rubber adhesive has worked a sizeable revolution in the industrial use of rubber, permitting the bonding of rubber to metal with an adhesion conservatively stated as 500 to 750 psi. The cement also produces a strong, flexible, waterproof bond between rubber and such materials as concrete and wood, and between metals and such materials as leather, fabric, sponge rubber, and wood.”
Consider the impact on just two industries, printing and papermaking, where printing rolls and huge rolls that squeezed water from large sheets of paper were previously made from solid rubber. Steel rolls with a layer of rubber attached, using Vulcalock, proved to be far more effective and durable.
Many different adhesives were in use for a wide range of industrial purposes, but only a few, including Vulcalock, were considered game-changers. In 1926, Goodrich announced several recent applications:
“Heretofore it has been necessary to insert a hard rubber base between soft rubber and metal to obtain proper adherence, as in the case of a solid rubber tire on a metal rim…. Experiments are being conducted with it in the manufacture of tires for commercial vehicles. Another important feature … is that it will make rubber adhesive to an aluminum surface, a development on which rubber engineers have been working for years. This will allow a thin strip of rubber to be used as a covering on airplane propellers, protecting them from dirt and corrosion.
“Rubber treated by the process also is to be used in making water-tight coverings for pontoons and for chutes in mills and factories, where there is heavy abrasive action on the surface to be protected. In the latter case, rubber is said to have forty times the wearing quality of steel. Goodrich engineers are now making experiments for the US Army in covering pontoons with Vulcalock rubber.”
By the following year, its use had expanded into many other areas. “Goodrich Vulcalock cement is one of the strongest adhesives for attaching rubber plates or dies to metal,” wrote the Bunbury Herald and Blackwood Express of Western Australia. “As far as lining mills with rubber is concerned, there is at present no method of attaching the rubber other than by the Vulcalock process…. By this new process of attachment, steel plates can be covered with soft rubber and then cut and bent into shape in the cold, as required in order to make a lining shell for the mills, and there is no tendency even during this drastic treatment for the rubber to leave the metal. In using soft rubber as a corrosion-resisting material, the lining may be placed in steel tanks and tank cars, wooden barrels and containers, reaction vessels, acid eggs, centrifugal pumps, digesters, and similar vessels.”
Following up on tire applications, automobile manufacturers found a multitude of uses for rubber and the sealing capabilities of Geer’s invention. In 1931, several of these were described in the Lowell (MA) Sun: “Goodrich has developed a new kind of inner tube, the air container, which not only gives better cushioning and maintains pressure longer, but also seals punctures on a running wheel. Today’s automobiles are rubber cushioned throughout. The Goodrich Vulcalock process enables the use of rubber as a vibration insulator, and motors of many automobiles now are mounted on rubber cushions which prevent the transmission of shock to the chassis and body.”
The company made a fortune on Geer’s latest creation, and touted its many uses in a 1933 manual subtitled, A Guide to Selection of Belting, Hose, and Other Products. “The Vulcalock process is an exclusive, patented Goodrich method of bonding soft, resilient rubber directly to the surface of metals with an adhesion exceeding 500 lbs. per sq. in.—practically an integral union. Principal Vulcalock products are:
“Vulcalock tanks and tank cars for processing, storage, and transportation of acids and other corrosives.
“Vulcalock Pipes, Valves, and Fittings.
“Vulcalock Drums and Barrels.
“Vulcalock Fans, Blowers, and Pumps.
“Rubber-covered equipment for abrasive service.
“Vulcalock Rolls for Paper Mills; also Steel and Tin Mill Wringers, Scrubbers, Galvanizing, and Pickling Rolls, and Vulcalock Centrifugal Baskets.” (Pickling, using mostly hydrochloric acid, removes impurities, etc., from the surfaces of iron, steel, copper, aluminum alloys, and precious metals.)
Its uses seemed endless, limited only by the imagination. In 1939, the Gowanda (NY) News wrote, “The DeKalb Agricultural Association of Lafayette, Ind., reports success with rubber rollers, made by the Akron-developed “Vulcalock” process, for removing excess husks and silk from cobs of seed corn.” At least into the late 1950s, it was used to seal paint to golf-ball covers. The 2013 San Francisco Maritime National Park Association still prescribes the use of Vulcalock for sealing certain underwater cable connections. It is used in some current EPA specifications, is called for in many patents requiring adhesives, and is used in waterproofing applications that include mining, and building cloud chambers.
Engineering with Rubber noted that a long list of adhesives was available “to meet virtually every possible condition,” and cited the 20 best, most versatile selections. Set apart from the pack, said the authors, were two that launched drastic changes in several industries. “There are some adhesives whose performance has been so outstanding that they merit special consideration. Two such cements are the B. F. Goodrich Vulcalock, and Plastilock 500.” Vulcalock, said the authors, “has worked a sizeable revolution in the industrial use of rubber.”
That assessment was a great compliment to the creative genius of William Geer, coming more than two decades after he invented Vulcalock. The name’s trademark, filed in 1926 and registered in 1927, was finally allowed to expire in 1992, giving way, as inventions do, to modern advances in technology.
(Note: a drawback of Vulcalock was identified decades later when health risks related to one of its components, asbestos, were publicized.)
Photos: William C. Geer (Ithaca Journal, 1936); Vulcalock advertisement (Scientific American, 1926); three decades prior to 1980’s TV ads for Krazy Glue with a man suspended from a steel beam, two men dangle from a one-inch square of rubber attached to steel by Vulcalock (Engineering with Rubber, 1949)