Speed Marvel and the Amazing Rubber Project
One of the most ambitious, but least remembered, government projects of World War II.
Speed Marvel sounds like the hero of a summer big-screen blockbuster—a melding of Speed Racer and the Marvel comic book universe. But for the real-life Speed Marvel, the only “melding” that took place occurred in his LAS chemistry lab. And instead of spandex, the primary stretchable material that he worked with was rubber.
In fact, Carl “Speed” Marvel looked more like a superhero’s alter ego, always dressed in a dark, navy blue suit coat and black socks. He also happened to be one of the most influential and colorful researchers in the more than 100-year history of the University of Illinois Department of Chemistry.
Recognized as a father of synthetic polymer chemistry, Marvel was a key figure in one of the most ambitious, but least-remembered, government projects of the 20th century—the Synthetic Rubber Research Program. This heroic project, which involved the government, industry, and 11 universities, aimed to create enough synthetic rubber during World War II to compensate for the natural rubber supply that had been choked off by the Japanese.
“Our natural rubber had been coming from the Malay Peninsula, but the Japanese took over the entire area,” recalls Robert Chambers, who worked for Marvel as a graduate student during the war. “Without the natural rubber, we had to have synthetic rubber. But the synthetic rubber, in most cases, was not as good.”
According to Peter Morris, author of The American Synthetic Rubber Research Program, the United States “was cut off from nine-tenths of the world’s rubber-producing regions” during World War II. So something drastic had to be done, because the fate of the war effort could literally turn on something as basic as rubber tires.
Enter Speed Marvel, a home-grown Illinois boy, born in 1894 on a farm three miles south of Waynesville. After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan with his master’s degree in 1915, Marvel came to U of I where he immersed himself in an overwhelming load of work.
“When he was not studying, he worked late at night in the laboratory,” says Nelson Leonard, a U of I chemistry professor. “As a result, he slept as late as possible but still got to the breakfast table before the dining room door closed at 7:30 a.m. His student colleagues decided that was the only time he ever hurried, and they nicknamed him ‘Speed.’”
As a graduate student, Speed Marvel also earned a reputation for his knack for identifying volatile organic compounds by odor alone. As Marvel himself told it, a skeptical professor once handed him an unknown mixture and said he didn’t believe he could do it. So Marvel eagerly accepted the challenge and proceeded to sniff out “a low aliphatic alcohol, a volatile fatty acid, and an aromatic amine.”
In 1920, Marvel joined the U of I staff as a chemistry instructor and soon made a name for himself in polymers, which are large molecules with repeating structures. Polymers include all kinds of materials, such as plastics, neoprene, and rubber.
“Marvel was probably the leading academic researcher working on the synthesis of polymers at that time,” says Chambers. This made it natural for Marvel to step in as one of the key leaders in the Synthetic Rubber Research Program, which began in 1942 and lasted until 1957. In fact, because of Marvel’s presence, the U of I became the most heavily funded of the 11 universities in the project. Marvel’s group worked closely with industry, regularly shipping products to the rubber companies for testing, Chambers says.
Chambers was not officially involved with the rubber program, but Marvel sometimes asked him to work on the project. He recalls the long hours, working 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week and having little time for dating—although he admits that was probably more due to “social inadequacies.”
The universities did not produce any radical innovations in the rubber project, but they did make vital “incremental improvements,” Morris says. What’s more, the project as a whole became a tremendous success story.
“In the three-and-a-half years between December 1941 and August 1945, the United States built up a synthetic rubber industry with an annual output of 756,000 long tons,” he points out. This was seven times as much synthetic rubber as the Germans produced during their peak year of 1943.
“The hard work of a legion of scientists and engineers made the miracle possible,” he adds, but they never did come up with a synthetic rubber that could take the place of GR-S rubber, or Government Rubber Styrene. Morris did say that Marvel’s group developed a rubber that “was superior in some respects to GR-S, but it was never commercialized.”
Marvel oversaw close to 100 researchers and tackled no less than 14 discrete topics. For instance, the U of I team solved a major snag with the original process of polymerizing GR-S rubber; they discovered that polyunsaturated fatty acids interfered with the polymerization process.
After World War II, Marvel went on a technical intelligence mission to Germany, where the team uncovered secrets that eventually led to a cold rubber process, which produced a superior rubber. Morris says that Marvel’s synthetic rubber work also led to his groundbreaking research on heat-resistant polymers in the 1950s and ’60s. The result was polybenzimadazoles (PBI), a vital material in the aerospace industry.
When three astronauts were killed in a 1967 fire aboard Apollo 1, NASA selected PBI for its superior fire-protection qualities. PBI is now part of astronauts’ and firefighters’ clothing and is commonly used for fire-block layers on aircraft seats, among many other uses.
Marvel retired from the U of I in 1961, but he essentially had a second career at the University of Arizona, where Marvel Hall now stands in his honor.
Speed Marvel, who passed away in 1988, was larger than life in both his personality and physical stature. At one point, he carried over 250 pounds on a frame slightly over six feet tall. But according to Chambers, he could still walk around almost silently and “all of a sudden he would appear next to you.” Marvel also retained a love of nature all of his life as an avid birdwatcher and fisherman.
“Speed cruised the back roads of Illinois at 70 miles per hour, occasionally screeching to a halt, listening a minute, and then saying, ‘Over there is such and such a bird,’” recalls Elizabeth Rogers, an instructor of general chemistry from 1963 to 1988. “He then checked it off his list and roared off again.”
Stories about Marvel abound—such as the time he single-handedly put out a laboratory fire before the fire department arrived...or the time he pulled a Nebraska chemistry professor out of a lake because the friend couldn’t swim (neither could Marvel)...or the time he was consulting for a pharmaceutical company and “sampled” some medicines they were developing, hoping they would solve his long-time sinus problems. The medicines didn’t heal him, but they did turn a seven-inch-long patch of skin on his leg temporarily blue.
Marvel may not have been a superhero, no matter what images his name conjures up, but he was certainly one of the country’s best synthetic organic chemists. He was also something of an artist.
“Synthetic organic chemists are more like artists than scientists,” says Chambers. “Chemicals are like colors, and you can paint whatever picture you want by putting all of these chemicals together and synthesizing something. So Marvel was an artist. You couldn’t do any better than him.”
Bill Katz (BS ’38, chemical engineering), who took Marvel’s organic chemistry course, wrote us that he believes there was another reason for Marvel’s nickname. “As the bell rang he started talking and simultaneously writing equations on the blackboard at an extremely rapid rate—hence ‘Speed’ Marvel—while we all struggled to keep up writing our notes. At the bell concluding the class, he stopped talking and writing in mid-sentence, and walked out of the classroom.”
Robert J. Sauer (PhD ’62, chemistry) writes that he “was fortunate to have known Speed Marvel briefly and to have been on several local birding outings with him during my years (1958-62) at Illinois before he retired to Arizona. The tales of his birding expertise are absolutely true. I was also very interested in the photo of Professor Marvel: It appears to be of Speed in what came to be known among grad students as ‘Marvel’s Stockroom.’ This was a collection of very unusual organic chemicals, housed just down the second floor west hallway of Noyes Lab across from Roger Adam’s and Stanley Smith’s offices, and reputedly begun by Speed, possibly back in the days of the Rubber Project. In my days if anyone wanted a sample of an unusual organic compound, the first place to look was Marvel’s Stockroom. NIOSH and OSHA regulations of recent years have probably necessitated dispersal of this truly ‘Marvelous’ (pun intended) collection!”
By Doug Peterson