ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The inventors of butyl rubber, used widely as the air impermeable inner liner for most tires, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May in recognition of their contributions to “American life, progress, innovation and culture.”
William J. Sparks and Robert M. Thomas co-invented poly-isobutylene-co-isoprene—commonly known as butyl rubber—while conducting research at Standard Oil Co.'s laboratory in Linden, N.J., in 1937, according to NIHF and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the co-hosts of the induction ceremony scheduled for May 4-5 at the Hall of Fame in Alexandria.
Sparks and Thomas are among 16 inventors who make up the hall's class of 2016. CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Mo Rocca will be the master of ceremonies for the 44th annual induction ceremony.
According to their bios posted on the NIHF website, Messrs. Sparks and Thomas experimented with another Standard Oil product, Vistanex, which had rubber-like properties. They mixed a batch of Vistanex in a washing machine, then added a small amount of butadiene, which when blended yielded the first commercial batch of butyl rubber.
Butyl rubber—as strong as natural rubber, resistant to oxidation, and possessing unusually low gas permeability—was used by the U.S. government during World War II and commercialized in 1943, according to the NIHF.
The first major use for butyl rubber was in making tire inner tubes. Butyl rubber and its modifications are still used for tire inner tubes, motor mounts, sealants and tank and pond liners. Its impermeability to air makes it useful for protective gloves, sealants and adhesives, bladders in sporting balls, and more, including a food-safe version for chewing gum.
“It is a privilege to partner with the National Inventors Hall of Fame for more than four decades and highlight the nation's brightest luminaries while inspiring the next generation of innovators,” said Michelle Lee, under secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and director of the USPTO.
“This year, the USPTO is thrilled to also help unveil a reinvigorated museum that celebrates the story of intellectual property and illuminates its significance to American life, progress, innovation and culture.”
The NIHF was established in 1973 to honor individuals who conceived and patented great technological achievements since the birth of our nation. From 1995 to 2008 it was based in Akron but moved back to Alexandria in 2008.
The criteria for induction into the Hall require candidates to hold a U.S. patent that has “contributed significantly to the nation's welfare and the advancement of science and the useful arts.”
Sparks and Thomas' patent is No. 2,356,128—Mixed olefinic polymerization process and product.
Sparks received his B.A. and M.A. from Indiana University and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. In addition to Standard Oil, he worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Esso Research and Engineering, and earned 145 patents for materials including new fuels, gasoline additives, propellants, encapsulated oxidants, asphalt additives, and food-wrapping films. He died in 1976 at age 71.
Thomas received his B.S. in chemistry from Virginia Tech. He joined Standard Oil in 1929 and retired in 1965. During his career, he earned 75 patents and directed the work of several notable polymer scientists. He died in 1984 at age 76.
In the past the Hall of Fame has inducted 16 other inventors with rubber-related inventions/patents, including Charles Goodyear, Harvey Firestone, John Boyd Dunlop and Wallace Carothers, who commercialized synthetic rubber successfully.