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The Tree that shrunk the world

Instant communication across the world is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Find out how it was first achieved via the peculiar properties of the Gutta Percha tree.

We were delighted to be commissioned by BBC studios to write and produce this explainer on Gutta Percha for their history mystery series.

Big thanks to Dan John for comissioning.

Script

 Look at this map. This is the area controlled by Britain in 1850. All 22 million square kilometers of it. For the Victorians, this was an issue. The world was just too big. If there was an uprising in India or a drought in Brisbane, it could take months for the news to reach London via ship. The recently invented telegraph was doing a fine job of keeping cities and regions connected but sabotage, accidental damage and bad weather meant flows of information over the vast area of the Empire were patchy at best.

 

One idea was to lay the telegraph lines across the ocean floor out of harm's way. But how to protect the copper cables from the sea? After all, water and electricity aren't a good mix.
Early attempts to lay a cable under the Hudson River to New York, using wires coated with wax, cotton and hemp left a soggy mess. But an unlikely solution was to be found on the other side of the world. A surgeon with the East India Company called William Montgomery is shown a strange latex by his Malay gardener.
(01:29) It was called Gutta Percha after the tree that it came from: 'Getah perca'. This material when placed in hot water could be molded into any shape you wanted and on cooling, wood set solid. You could do this again and again, and it would happily mold into any shape you liked. Unlike rubber, it didn't crumble in saltwater and stayed firm on setting rather than remaining, well, rubbery.
(01:59) Montgomery saw the potential of gutta percha in surgery, but it turned out to be useful for much more than just that. It blew Victorian minds and within a decade they were casting the latex into ear trumpets, shoe soles, golf balls and truncheons. It was the demand for truncheons that led to the first spike in prices.
(02:24) In 1848, the Metropolitan Police ordered 10,000 truncheons to put down peaceful protests. It also turned out that gutta percha was a great insulator for undersea cables. The problem of submarine telegraphy was solved. By 1875, Britain's empire was unified in a system known as the All Red Line. Red, because that's how Britain like to colour its territory on maps.
(02:54) Signals in Morse code were firing back to London from all over the Empire, helping the government to keep a watchful eye on the Colonies and keeping British merchants ahead of the competition. A note written in Cairo could be checked in London before being sent on to Delhi in a matter of hours instead of months.
(03:15) The world had shrunk and it would never be the same again. Job done. Well, sort of. Nobody was noticing how the tree was fairing. This Victorian tech may have been cutting edge, but it was harvested in the most shortsighted way. A ten ton tree, once it was cut down, only yielded 300 grams of latex. That's like knocking down a house to use a brick.
(03:47) This wasn't an issue when the indigenous Malays felled a few trees in the forest every now and then. But the British went mad for the stuff. Over 300000 kilometres of undersea cable were laid between 1850 and 1902. Add to its other uses. And it's estimated that around 100 million trees were destroyed during this period.
(04:13) By 1900, the tree had disappeared almost entirely from the map. So why didn't they try to cultivate gutta percha? Well, they did, but only after the tree had virtually gone extinct in the wild. While the latex kept flowing from the jungles of Southeast Asia, the cable manufacturers were happy to turn a blind eye to how it was sourced.
(04:39) And with the tree taking 30 years to mature, the industry was happy to keep plundering away until the new plantations were ready. Eventually, by the 1930s, Gutta Percha was superseded by the development of synthetic polymers. Today, the tree has slowly recovered in the wild, but its population is now threatened by deforestation.
(05:05) With the arrival of the new plastics, gutta percha rapidly fell out of use. And in just a few generations the word has gone from a household name to a historical curiosity. Except among dentists. The salt water and acid resistant properties that made gutta percha so important to undersea cabling also make it ideal in root canal surgery.
(05:33) Although you may never have heard of it, you might unwittingly be carrying a little piece of gutta percha in your jaw. A curious fate for a tree that shrunk the world.
 

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