Did you know that the rubber we use for pencil erasers was first used by the Olmecs, an ancient Mexican civilisation, 3500 years ago?
The Olmecs made rubber from a the ‘milk’ of various trees and plants, including the Castilla elastic tree and the Ipomoea alba plant, and produced broad, flexible strips which they wound into a ball.
Then they took the ball and played a violent game with it, which makes rugby look very tame by comparison. Serious injury was common as the game wasn’t played on grass, but on a stone surface.
Players would tackle each other and dive on to stone just to keep the ball in play and would end up bloodied and bruised. Occasionally players would die from internal injuries when they were hit by a ball at high speed.
The game, known as Uluma, is still played in a few communities in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, and is now the oldest game in the world which uses a rubber ball.
The Western world discovered the pencil-erasing properties of rubber until the 18th century.
British stationer Edward Nairne, who also made mathematical instruments, was the first person to sell rubber for this purpose and it was much more expensive in those days, relatively speaking, at three shillings for a small piece.
One of Nairne’s customers was Joseph Priestly who then advertised the properties of rubber in his textbook on mathematical perspective in 1770.
He said it was: “excellently adapted to the purpose of wiping from paper the marks of a black-lead pencil.”
And with this stirring endorsement from the great theologian and science buff, the rest was history!