Few other materials have had such a revolutionary impact on the world. And few others have been forgotten so quickly.
(Ben Wilson, Heyday: Britain and the birth of the modern world, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 2016, p. xxiii)
Describing gutta percha as “the vanished material that made the telecommunication revolution possible”, Ben Wilson gives it centre-stage in his history of Britain in 1850s. A form of rubber, gutta percha is derived from the sap of the the palaquium fruit tree, native to what is now Malaysia; if drawn off and exposed to air, it solidifies. If heated, it becomes a pliable latex, and can be formed and hardened into whatever shape is needed. The local people had used it for centuries for items such as utensil handles and vases. Although British travellers had noted its strange properties in the sixteenth century, it was not until 1832 that a government doctor, William Montgomery, realised the significance of its properties.
Within a decade a new industry had developed. The hard, pliable latex was washed, folded into blocks, and brought by ship from Singapore to London, and to the new, and by the standards of the time, very high-tech, factory of the Gutta Percha Company, at Wharf Road, Islington. A report of a visit to the factory by a journalist in the early 1850s appeared in the The Illustrated Exhibitor and Magazine of Art. He noted that “We enter a modest-looking doorway between a pair of folding gates, on which the words ‘Gutta Percha Company’ are printed, and we become speedily aware that a branch of manufacture of which we hitherto knew next to nothing is being carried on within”. In the manufacturing process, the gutta-percha was boiled, shaved by a cutting machine, boiled again, then kneaded at high temperature, cooled in another machine and rolled into sheets, to be sold to manufacturers around the world.” Gutta-percha became ubiquitous in mid-Victorian daily life, used in tents, clothing, shoes, jewellery, domestic appliances and furniture. Waterproof, and resistant to acids, salt water, and chemicals, it was invaluable to industry for many purposes.
Its significance for information history, is that it is not only strong and waterproof, but also does not deteriorate when submerged for long periods in salt water, it proved the perfect insulator for electric wiring for undersea telegraph cables. The first cross channel cable, laid by HMS Blazer in 1851, was made from 100 miles of copper telegraph wire encased in a tube of gutta-percha, provided by the Gutta-Percha Company; four lengths were twined together with hemp, and encased in galvanised iron wiring as a protection. In 1858 it was used to insulate the first (unsuccessful) trans-Atlantic cable.
Subsequently, the Gutta-Percha Company amalgamated with Glass, Elliot and Co., a maker and layer of cables, to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co. Ltd. (Telcon), who made the successful Atlantic cable laid in 1866. Its use in supporting the infrastructure of the communications revolution continued until after the end of the nineteenth century.
Gutta percha fell from widespread use during the twentieth century, replaced for most purposes by synthetic materials, particularly polyethylene. It is still, however, widely used in dentistry; a worthwhile use certainly, but perhaps a come-down for a material which played a major part in the instantiation of the modern information age.