SNF Ambizione

Call for Applications

SNSF Ambizione project PZ00P1_193277: running time 2021-2025

Total funding: CHF 942’462.-

Anticipations and Disruptions of the ‘Synthetic Age’: Rubber, Science and Resources, c.1839–1945

The PI’s project examines the interconnected histories of natural and synthetic rubber between 1839 and 1945. Rubber, the key material of modern warfare, communication and mobility, provides not only an exemplary case through which to explore the shifting boundaries between the natural and artificial in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. It also represents an ideal commodity to investigate the forgotten challenges, utopian and dystopian visions that surrounded chemistry’s discovery of the ‘fourth kingdom’ – next to nature’s flora, fauna and minerals – more generally. This project proposes that natural rubber, with its uncanny properties that both fascinated and disgusted contemporaries alike, was a key bridging material with the world of synthetics. Its unique material properties helped consumers accept ever more blurred boundaries between the organic and the fabricated, the simulacrum and the deception – thus paving the way for the later efflorescence of artificial and fully synthetic materials that pervade the modern world.

The chemical revolution of the nineteenth century, which produced the first fully synthetic materials, initiated an intriguing discussion among contemporaries about the prospects for and consequences of human interventions into the material fabric of the world. Until now, historical scholarship has almost entirely overlooked important aspects of this discourse, such as the underlying hopes, fears and greed that drove it. There were indeed many breakthroughs in industrial chemistry in this period; and yet, as this project shows, it was the search for novel materials and substitutes which itself produced a rich history of anticipation and ‘what-ifs’. The complex cultural consequences of this intense search for synthetic alternatives can be found through the analysis of a wide array of contemporary sources, both written and visual.

The project takes part in the current preoccupation with human–nature relationships throughout the humanities and the public sphere. By focusing on rubber, a key substance of industrial modernity, a number of geographically diffuse and socially transformative processes in the dawning of the ‘synthetic age’ are studied here for the first time. While the historical term ‘synthetic age’ was increasingly used since the 1920s in the context of the discovery, production and consumption of new polymeric substances, this project also deploys it as a conceptual term to grasp and explore earlier understandings of synthetic chemistry and the horizon of expectations and real economic disruptions it produced since the 1830s. The work draws particular inspiration from new research in dynamic fields such as imperial and environmental history, global commodity chains, recycling regimes, and the history of science and consumption. It investigates the emergence of parallel and competing resource cycles for rubber – one based on tropical extraction, the other on lab-based production – in order to understand not only changing perceptions, but also real disruptions that industrial chemistry brought to existing resource regimes in the global tropics. Through a multi-sited analytical account of the connections between micro- and macro-level developments and repercussions both in and between tropical commodity frontiers and the spaces of industrial labs and factories, it advances current interests in modern resource management. It seeks to demonstrate the persistence of pre-modern forms of material extraction and accumulation in today’s world, exploring – through the example of rubber – the limits of the synthetic revolution also.

Field of research for the PhD project

The PhD project should lie in the field of modern resource regimes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It can address one or several of the following topics: rubber and war industries; the history of rubber waste and recycling; ersatz products, synthetic rubber and questions of autarky in modern society; history of consumption and everyday technologies, including the role of gender relations for the consumption of rubber products; rubber, imperialism and commodity frontiers; rubber factories and businesses; the history of resource planning and development; or other subjects related to rubber, research into synthetics, industrial chemistry and resources. Applicants are free to choose an appropriate geographical focus and approach for their project. 

The submitted research sketch/proposal (title, research question, scholarly background, aims, method, sources) should be situated in the field of the PhD project outlined above.