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What are rubber balloons made from?
Higher quality rubber (toy) balloons are made from a naturally occurring substance called Latex. Latex is biodegradable and will decompose as fast as an oak leaf in your back yard given identical conditions. The degradation process begins almost immediately after inflated balloons are exposed to the air. This can be seen by the oxidation --the "frosting" ---that begins to coat Latex balloons after they have been inflated for awhile. Exposure to elevated temperatures and sunlight quickens this process, but natural microorganisms will also attack and decompose natural Latex rubber even in the dark. The total degradation time of a Latex balloon will vary depending on the precise environmental conditions it encounters, but it can be as short as several weeks.
Where does Latex come from?
Latex is a naturally occuring milky sap that comes from rubber trees (Hevea brasilliensis) that grow in many of the world's rain forests. Currently, the country of Maylasia is the world's largest producer of natual Latex. The Latex is collected by cutting the bark of the tree with a knife and catching the Latex in a cup as it drips out. The process is very much like the way sap is harvested from maple trees to make maple syrup. This harvesting is accomplished all without doing permanent damage to the tree. A single rubber tree can produce rubber for about 40 years! Because rubber trees represent a nearly perpetual cash crop, this helps discourage people from cutting them down, which, in turn, helps preserve the rain forests of the world for future generations.
How and when were Latex balloons invented?
Toy balloons were invented in England the same year as the electro-magnet (1824). Early balloons were made from pig bladders and later from a rubber similar to that used to make rain boots. However, the modern-day, manufactured Latex toy balloon---the kind you buy and blow up yourself---has only been around for 70 years or so. It's inventor is generally considered to be a chemical engineer from New England named Neil Tillotson. Back in 1931, Mr. Tillotson had become extremely frustrated while trying to make useable inner tubes from raw Latex. So, just for fun, he scrawled the shape of a cat's head on a piece of cardboard, cut it out and then dipped it in the liquid Latex to see what would happen. When the rubber dried, he inflated the little bag he had produced and found, much to his surprise, that he had made a "cat balloon"---complete with ears! He produced about 2000 of these balloons and sold them on the street corner at Boston's annual Patriot's Day Parade that year. Needless to say, the new novelty was a big hit with the crowds. The rest of the story, as they say, is history. Mr. Tillotson later went on to found one of the country's oldest and largest Latex balloon manufacturers, Tillotson Rubber Company. I'm told the company is now being operated by Mr. Tillotson's son and they they are still in the business of manufacturing and selling their unique line of "Tilly®"Latex balloons.