Rubber From Goldenrod?
When you first here the name Thomas Edison, the first thought that comes to one’s mind is the electric light bulb, the phonograph, or one of the other 1,093 inventions he patented in his career.
Yet, Edison’s work extended past these items he developed while in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Following the death of Edison’s first wife, Mary, in 1884, Edison moved his work from Menlo Park to West Orange, New Jersey, and in 1885 purchased a retreat in Fort Myers, Florida. This would later be named Seminole Lodge. Yet, to Edison, this new Seminole Lodge would soon have a very specific purpose.
As war approached in 1914, Edison and his Fort Myers neighbor, Henry Ford began to worry about the United States’ reliance on foreign rubber production. So, the two teamed up with their other friend, Harvey Firestone, to attempt to find a plant that would grow quickly, and contained enough latex to produce a usable rubber. As this big idea to develop rubber in the United States was generated, it was soon put into action. In 1927, the three men contributed $25,000 a piece to build the Edison botanical garden and research lab in Fort Myers, which would serve as an ideal growing area for the exotic species Edison would attempt to grow.
In 1928, Edison soon began planting tens of thousands of exotic plants, which could potentially produce the valuable latex, on his property in Fort Myers. As Edison worked and tested these plants, he would send any evidence of rubber or latex to his lab in West Orange for further testing, while he continued his work in Florida.
After testing 17,000 different plant species, Edison finally discovered that the plant that produced the most latex was Goldenrod, which Edison figured contained around 12% latex. Edison continued his work on the project until just a few months before his death in 1931, and the project was later transferred to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Although, Edison put his heart and soul into this project, by World War 2, Henry Ford and his new team of researches discovered that synthetic rubber was a much quicker and more effective process to use for tire production on Ford’s vehicles. The work Edison had done with the goldenrod was abandoned.
Edison and Ford’s winter estates in Fort Myers, Florida are now a historical museum in which many flock to see each year. The property still has both men’s original homes, Edison’s laboratory, as well as 21 acres of the botanical garden that still houses many of the species Edison planted. It also includes one of the largest Banyan trees in existence, measuring 400 feet, as well as thousands of other species, that he and his wife, Mina planted while they were in Florida.
Although Edison is so greatly known for his work with electricity, he was also one of the key developers of natural rubber and attempted to change the industry in a time of crisis.