Gutta percha was obtained from a variety of guttiferous trees throughout
the Pacific Rim although different varieties produce materials
of differing quality. The differences generally reflect the quantity
of resin in the product with that from Pahang having the lowest
resin content. Balata has one of the highest resin contents and
was obtained from trees in the tropical regions of South America.
There is much confusion in the literature, and amongst collectors,
as to “what gutta percha is” In practical terms, and
when addressing collectors’ items, the material is probably
the whole residue from the latex, dried after collection from
whichever tree was its source. This material tends to range from
dark yellow through red to black. It is possible that it has undergone
some degree of purification but, given the variations in initial
composition, it would be extremely difficult to confirm this,
even by detailed chemical analysis.
In the same way that commercially available natural rubber is
some 95% cis polyisoprene, the crude gutta percha was often 30%
to 50% trans polyisoprene. That is it has the same chemical “building
block” as natural rubber (C5H8)n but with a different spacial
configuration. Isolation of the pure trans polyisoprene gives
a white/very pale cream “cheesy” material which looks
and feels not unlike a block of high density polythene (m.p. about
135°C) or polypropylene (m.p. 168°C). The hard gutta percha
softens at relatively low temperatures (>71°C) and could
then easily be moulded or extruded (the screw extruder was invented
in 1845). At slightly lower temperatures, around 60°C, it
can easily be cut whilst at room temperature it reverts to a hard
It is generally believed that a British surgeon, Dr William Montgomerie,
was the first person to introduce the Western world to gutta percha
in 1843. However, that honour actually belongs to John Tradescant
who had returned from his travels in the Far East with this material
in 1656. He called it “mazer wood” but it then was
regarded as only one of many plant curiosities and it was left
to Dr Montgomerie to appreciate its potential. He originally saw
the material in Singapore, in 1822, and learned its Malay name
– gutta percha - but he forgot about it when he transferred
to the Bengal Residency. When he returned to Singapore he remembered
the material and how the workers had made handles for their machetes
with it. It struck him that there was potential for its use both
as knife handles and for various medical devices. After some experimentation
he referred his work (in 1843) to the Medical Board of Calcutta
and copied the documents to The Royal Society of Arts in London
through his brother-in-law. The Society realised the potential
of the material and promptly awarded Montgomerie its gold medal.
At about the same time, Dr Hosé d’Almeida submitted
similar studies to the Royal Asiatic Society together with some
samples of gutta percha. Early experiments in England with the
gutta were not very successful but in Paris, using Montgomerie’s
data, several medical instruments were manufactured.
Once the technology was understood, things moved rapidly and
later that year Hancock& Bewley formed The Gutta Percha Company
in the UK. In 1845 Lagrénée returned to France from
China and brought with him some gutta percha which he too had
found in Singapore. His named the material “gum plastic”.
In the following year we can record the first gutta percha patent
– taken out by Alexander, Cabriol & Duclos for a laminate
consisting of three layers: gutta-fabric-gutta. Unfortunately
they considered gutta to be akin to rubber and overlooked the
fact that its plastic qualities were quite different from the
elastic properties of the latter. As with the early days of rubber,
it looked as though gutta percha was not going to be of much use.
However, Gutta percha had properties which could be exploited
and three of these, together with its softening at easily attainable
temperatures, provided its three main areas of use until each
was superseded by advances in synthetic plastic materials.
The three properties were its hard “plasticity”,
its electrical insulating properties and its extremely low coefficient
of thermal expansion/contraction. These were exploited in quite
different ways; the first in the manufacture of golf balls, the
second in the manufacture of telegraph cables and the third in
the making of moulds, dies and castings where the final (cold)
product was dimensionally identical to the moulded (hot) one.
This last area was of considerable importance because of the extreme
delicacy and detail which could be included in the mould and then
copied by the new “electro-metallurgical” process.
The first gutta percha golf ball, known as a “gutty”
was hand moulded by J Patterson in Scotland in 1845 and was just
a smooth ball. Previous balls had been made of wood, then leather
stuffed with feathers and these took a couple of hours or so to
make. The rapid introduction of metal moulds meant that one person
could turn out 10 or more per hour which drastically reduced their
cost and was a significant factor in the expansion of the game’s
popularity. In the 1860’s it was discovered that cutting groves
in the ball improved its flight. Again, this was originally done
by hand but by the 1890’s the pattern was built into the moulds.
Early in the 1900’s a new ball was introduced which had a
core of stretched natural rubber thread and the era of the gutty
In 1845 Charles Goodyear, Thomas' brother, and Henry Bewley
founded the Gutta Percha Company in West Ham and W Siemans suggested gutta percha as telegraph wire insulant.
Ttwo years later WH Barlow & T Forster took out a UK Patent
for the making of telegraph cables with gutta percha. In the same
year JJ Craven, working in the UK, insulated undersea cables with
gutta percha and in 1849 R & J Dick gave us the first recorded
use of gutta percha as a telegraph cable insulant (in London). The
following year they founded R & J Dick Ltd. Gutta Percha and
At the same time, J and JW Brett were preparing to lay the first
gutta percha insulated cable from Dover to Calais. In 1850 they
made their first attempt, which failed, as did their second the
following year. However, they were able to repair this and so began
a new era of communication. In 1858 CW Field used the ship “The
Faraday” to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. This
was both insulated and coated with gutta percha.
Gutta percha is very stable underwater and the cables lasted many
years – it would not surprise me if some still existed today
although modern ones are plastic insulated and coated. Indeed, Gutta
percha is very difficult to find today in anything other than antiques.
A recent television programme about the history of golf found its
researchers scouring the country to find some virgin material. One
small sealed tin was eventually found in Hertfordshire and, when
opened, it revealed a slab of pale cream pure gutta percha which
had not seen the light of day for many decades. After filming the
tin was re-sealed for posterity.
Gutta Percha timeline for the 19th century (taken from the full
encountered gutta percha, used by the natives to make
gutta percha to Europe. First use was for knife handles,
then golf balls etc.
gutta percha golf ball made in Scotland.
Gutta percha as telegraph wire insulant.
gutta percha from China.
Gutta Percha Company formed in West Ham.
Cabriol & Duclos
gutta percha patent – for a laminate consisting
of three layers: gutta-fabric-gutta.
Barlow & T Forster
for the making of telegraph cables with gutta percha.
undersea cables with gutta percha.
the close similarity of the thermal decomposition
products of natural rubber and gutta percha.
recorded use of gutta percha as a telegraph cable
insulant (in London).
R & J Dick Ltd. Gutta percha and balata manufacturers.
& JW Brett
in first attempt to lay gutta percha insulated cable
from Dover to Calais.
attempt failed but then completed.
what was to become the “India-Rubber, Gutta
Percha and telegraph Works” in London.
||USA / UK
transatlantic cable (insulated/coated with gutta percha)
laid by the cable ship ‘The Faraday’.
Kautschuk und Gutta Percha Co. established in Hanover.
gutta percha for power transmission belting.
for golf ball made of a core wound with stretched
rubber thread and coated with gutta percha applied