Mark Finlay Traces Search for Domestic Rubber in New Book

(June 10, 2009) Mark R. Finlay, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and a professor of history at Armstrong Atlantic State University (AASU), has written "Growing American Rubber, Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security." Rutgers University Press recently published his book.

"Growing American Rubber" explores America's quest during tense decades of the twentieth century to identify a viable source of domestic rubber. Straddling international revolutions and world wars, the book chronicles the efforts of leaders in business, science and government to sever American dependence on foreign suppliers. An intersecting network of actors including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, prominent botanists, interned Japanese Americans, Haitian peasants, and ordinary citizens-all contributed to this search for economic self-sufficiency.

"I have long been interested in connections between agriculture and industry," Finlay said. "The topic was not very cool a few decades ago, but now it's called biotechnology or the 'green economy,' and has more relevance today. More specifically, the project started when Dr. Anne Yentsch of AASU recommended me as a consultant for a project at the Edison-Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, FL."

Finlay pulled source material from about 75 different archival collections. He recalls, "Some of the more interesting archives were those where I could hold Edison's experimental notebooks in my hands, those associated with luxurious botanical gardens in Florida and California, and those in remote parts of eastern California were I could retrace the steps of the interned Japanese-Americans."

Savannah and other Georgia locations played their part experimenting with goldenrod in the search for a source of natural rubber. The facility now known as the Bamboo Farm & Coastal Gardens took over much of Edison's research on goldenrod in the early 1930s, while Ford and his colleagues conducted similar research near Richmond Hill. During World War II, rubber research at the Bamboo Farm expanded considerably, and officials nearly launched a plan to plant one million acres of goldenrod throughout the South.

Finlay explains, "The strategic importance of rubber between World War I and World War II resembles that of petroleum in today's economic and geopolitical affairs. The world economy, and world peace, depends in many ways upon access to strategic resources in faraway countries. The history of America's search for domestic rubber crops helps explain how we ended up with an economy so dependent upon petroleum and its byproducts, and how we might eventually return to agricultural plants as sources of valuable and potentially renewable resources."

Paul Israel, director and editor of the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University, said "By moving beyond the well-known stories of Edison's and Ford's efforts to find domestic sources of rubber, Mark Finlay provides readers with a fresh and important analysis of the connections between military and economic national security and access to a vital strategic natural resources that has implications to the present day."