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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

The Gutta Percha Company
by Bill Burns

George Oliver (standing)
and E. Stockley

Introduction: In 1950 the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon) created an exhibition of items made from gutta percha, the material which helped make the company's fortune. Thanks to George Oliver and Jim Jones for supplying these photographs from the 1950 exhibition.

Jim Jones also sends this photograph from the Telcon house magazine's Roving Camera feature, showing George Oliver (standing) and E. Stockley installing a new cable armouring machine at the Greenwich works in the 1950s.

George fought for the Telcon in boxing tournaments with other local firms such as Johnson & Phillips and Siemens.

--Bill Burns

Introduced to Britain in 1843, gutta percha is the gum of a tree native to the Malay Peninsula and Malaysia. At that time there was no application for the material as cable insulation; this would come later. Unlike india rubber, which must be vulcanised to be useful as an insulator, gutta percha is thermoplastic, softening at elevated temperatures and returning to its solid form as it cools. This made it easy to mould gutta percha into many decorative and functional objects, either by pressing the heated material into cold moulds, or by extrusion.

The Gutta Percha Company was established in 1845, and made chessmen, mirror surrounds, tea trays, commemorative plaques, animal figures, inkstands, and even a full-size sideboard, among many other decorative items. Industrial products included machinery belts, acid-tank linings, and tubes. The extrusion machinery used to make the tubes, modelled it is said on Italian pasta machines, was soon adapted for use in wire covering. This technique was used first to insulate landline cables, and later for submarine cables.

After the failure of their first cable in 1850, the brothers John and Jacob Brett laid a successful submarine cable from Dover to Calais in 1851. This used two layers of gutta percha insulation and an armoured outer layer. Gutta percha proved to be an ideal insulator for submarine cables, and as a further benefit for cable use it was found that gutta percha's insulating properties improved under the pressure and temperature conditions of the ocean bed. Gutta percha remained the prime material for submarine cable insulation for over 80 years.

Previous attempts to use gutta percha as cable insulation involved compressing two sheets of gutta percha around the wire, but this left two seams in the insulation. The Gutta Percha Company's tubes were seamless, and proved their value in insulating the 1850 and 1851 cross-channel cables, although the covering process had not yet been perfected. The conductors of the 1851 cable had an irregular coating of gutta percha, which had to be shaved away in places, and suffered from air holes and voids. Nonetheless, the cable was a success, and much additional business followed. Producing cable core became the company's main operation, consuming a significant proportion of the output of gutta percha, imports of which exceeded a thousand tons a year by 1861.

The Gutta Percha Company had few competitors during the 1850s, and supplied the bulk of the cable core in the early years of the industry, including that for the 1857 and 1858 Atlantic cables. By the time of the 1865 Atlantic cable, the company had supplied over 14,000 miles of core for 64 cables, and production of reliable and consistent cable core was routine. One of their major customers was cable manufacturer Glass, Elliot & Company, formed in 1854, which had made many cables, including the 1857 and 1858 Atlantic cables. To meet the financial and engineering demands of the 1865 cable, the Gutta Percha Company amalgamated with Glass, Elliot to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. Known as Telcon, this was the first company to be involved in every phase of cable making, from insulating the core to laying the completed cable.

Gutta percha proved to be such a well-suited material for insulating submarine cables that it was used almost exclusively until finally superseded by polythene in the early 1930s. Production of industrial and decorative gutta percha items also continued for many years.

Last revised: 15 February, 2010

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