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updated 9/9/2010 7:49:07 AM ET 2010-09-09T11:49:07

Just about everybody’s bounced a rubber ball. But making that ball bounce the first time was quite an accomplishment. Who did it? We’ll see. Today, on Engineering Works! Listen to the podcast.

We’re used to high-tech materials. Lightweight composites. Superstrong adhesives. Polymers that shift shape on command. And it’s easy to think that coming up with new materials or changing old ones is something new. It’s not. Take latex, or rubber, for instance. Charles Goodyear invented the process we call, vulcanization, in 1839. Before that, rubber was sticky stuff that got soft in heat and stiff in cold. Goodyear’s process gave us the tough rubber that we use in everything from tires to rubber boots rubber bands.

Goodyear’s process was important, but the Mayans in Central America were probably the first to understand how to change latex into more useful forms. And they did it hundreds of years before Goodyear. Mayans mixed latex with juice from the morning glory plant and got rubber that they used for all sorts of stuff. Rubber balls. Rubber bands. Rubber sandals. Rubber statues. Adhesives, glue.

The interesting part of this is that each of these things uses a different kind of rubber. Bouncy for balls. Tough for sandals. Sticky for adhesives. What they got depended on how much of morning glory juice they added to the raw liquid latex. But they did it and it worked.

We’ve done it for today and it’s time to bounce out of here. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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