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Gutta percha

Wonder material of the mid-19th century


Koehler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887

What tropical tree connects telegraphy and golf? The answer to the question in last month’s Pioneers’ Page is: gutta percha. The name comes from the Malay language and refers to several species of tree from the genus Palaquium (also called Isonandra) that are native to Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, the tree is known as “taban” and people there traditionally used its solidified sap (or “getah”) to make such items as moulded handles for tools and knives. This natural latex, also called gutta percha, is the trees’ most valuable product. And, some 150 years ago, its unique properties allowed a tremendous expansion in telegraphy — as well as in the game of golf.

 

The trees that produce gutta percha can grow up to 30 metres tall. They have glossy, evergreen leaves and white flowers.

Plastic precursor

While working as Singapore’s chief surgeon, a Briton, William Montgomerie, came across gutta percha in use by local people. Believing that it would be valuable for making medical equipment, he sent samples to the Royal Society of Arts in London, where the substance was exhibited in 1843.

 


BT Heritage

Submarine telegraph cables from around 1850: on the far right is the first cable laid between England and France, a simple wire coated with gutta percha

Telegraphy beneath the sea

The world’s first, international submarine telegraphic link was constructed by a retired British antiques dealer, John Watkins Brett. With his engineer brother Jacob, in 1850 he had a telegraph line laid between Dover in England and Cap Griz Nez in France. This was simply a copper wire coated in gutta percha that was so light it had to be weighted in order to sink. After only a day, it was broken by a fishing boat. However, a second attempt the following year used a much stronger cable that was designed for the purpose by railway engineer, Thomas Crampton. This had a double layer of gutta percha, enclosed within tarred hemp, spun yarn and galvanized iron wire. The telegraphic link opened on 13th November 1851, and one of its first uses was to transmit Paris stock prices to London.

 


BT Heritage

Jacob Brett helped to construct the world’s first international, submarine telegraph line in 1850  

Gutta percha is a polymer of isoprene that is soft when heated and can easily be moulded into various shapes that are precisely detailed. When cold, it is hard, inelastic and durable. These properties made it suitable for a multitude of uses, from picture frames to buttons, as demonstrated in the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. In the period before man-made plastics, the answer to easy manufacture of many goods was gutta percha.

Coating cables

Only four years before gutta percha arrived in London, Charles Wheatstone (working with William Cooke) had opened the world’s first commercial telegraph system in 1839 (see Pioneers’ Page for November 2006). He also experimented with telegraphic links through underwater cables. At the time, telegraph wires were normally coated with rubber. However, such an elastic material, which also became brittle when cold, was not ideal for submarine use. Wheatstone confirmed that gutta percha is an excellent electrical insulator that is well-suited to the dark, cold, high-pressure depths of the sea — where its insulating capability actually increases.

 


Stephen Done/LFC Museum

The coating of submarine telegraph cables became the main use of gutta percha, made easier by the invention in 1845 of a device (reportedly based on Italian pasta machines) that extruded a tube of gutta percha over copper wire. It is said that within fifty years, about 250 000 nautical miles of submarine telegraph cable had been laid worldwide, all with cores insulated in gutta percha. It was not bettered as a material for this purpose until the invention of polythene in 1933.

 Better balls

Golf also benefited from the introduction of gutta percha. The game had been played for centuries, first with wooden balls and then with ones made from feather-stuffed hide. The problem was that these hand-made balls were expensive and could not be used in wet conditions. Gutta percha came to the rescue in 1848, when it was first used for golf balls. These “gutties” could be made cheaply, and, if they became misshapen, they could easily be softened and remoulded. Their reliability and cheaper price was an important factor in the expanding the popularity of golf.

Teeth too

Despite its long history, gutta percha is still in use today. In the same year that the new type of golf ball appeared, gutta percha was first used in a compound for filling drilled teeth. Modern dentists continue to use it for filling root canals. Many of us, it seems, may carry gutta percha in our jaws! And without it, the mid-nineteenth century communications revolution of worldwide telegraphy might never have begun.

Question for next time:

This year has seen the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1806, and marks 150 years since the foundation of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. How does this flagpole in Liverpool link the two?
The answer appears in the next edition of Pioneers’ Page.

 

 

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