Sunday 25 June 2017

Gutta Percha - a natural thermoplastic

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Rigid latex produced from the sap of Palaquium gutta trees, gutta percha is trans-1,4-polyisoprene. It softens in boiling water, and the indigenous people of the Malay Archipelago moulded it to make handles for their parangs.

The above illustrate one of the many uses of gutta percha, that of the manufacture of a walking cane, suitable for a "gentleman" to assault another. In this case the walking cane shown led to the abolition of slavery in America. Gutta percha had a myriad of other uses in Victorian times -

Whilst researching the history of gutta percha, I found this appalling paragraph -

Gutta Percha, Its Discovery, History, Remarkable Properties, Vast Utility...
By William Dalton, 1849

The Malay Archipelago's forests were of course populated, and used by man for centuries before Lobb happened to notice the trees, and Montgomerie the unusual handle on a parang. The following from the same book -

Without doubt, the properties of gutta percha were exceedingly valuable to the folk living on the islands. They had a natural plastic to make handles with, long before the Western world. Unfortunately their subsistence lifestyle in an idyllic setting was soon to be destroyed.

"The gathering of gutta percha"
Gutta percha, its discovery, history, and manifold uses. B.L.Green, 1851

In 1851, 1,500,000 kg of gutta percha was imported into Britain. This sort of demand obviously required a substantial organisation of "native labour," something the British were skilled at -


Circa 1900 (and below)

The Malay Archipelago was ravaged before modern plastics replaced gutta percha. Here's an abstract from A Victorian Ecological Disaster: Imperialism, the Telegraph, and Gutta-Percha by John Tully -

"Until the invention of the electric telegraph, messages sent across the vast colonial empires of the nineteenth century took many months to arrive. By 1907, some 200,000 nautical miles of cable criss-crossed the ocean floors. Insulation of the cables from seawater relied on gutta-percha, a natural plastic related to rubber. Gutta-percha is all but forgotten today, but during the Victorian era it was a household word. Ironically, the high-tech Victorian telegraph industry was served by a primitive cottage industry. The gum was extracted by killing wild trees in the forests of Southeast Asia, and the scale of demand ensured that many millions of trees were destroyed. This industry brought about a Victorian ecological disaster that presaged the greater destruction of tropical rain forests occurring today."

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"Hodges emitted a scream the like of which
I hadn't heard since his scrotum was burned off
during my experiment with fluorine gas last year."

The Exotic Experimentation of Ernest Glitch,
Victorian Science with a Smile

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Unrelated to this post, below is an example of
eclectic science esoterica 

A homemade laser pistol that shoots a laser beam, constructed by Stanford University physics professor K. H. Sherwin in 1964, four years after the laser was invented, to demonstrate to his classes how lasers work. The body (left), recycled from a toy raygun, holds a pencil size ruby rod and two flashtubes.(right). It is attached by wire to a 200 watt-second high voltage power supply. When the trigger is pulled, the flashtubes go off, creating a pulse of red laser light from the rod. The coherent light pulse is powerful enough to pop a blue balloon (shown at left); but not a red one, since it reflects the red light.

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WARNING - Many subjects outlined within this site are extremely dangerous and are provided here for information only. Please don`t experiment with high voltages or chemicals unless you are fully conversant with safe laboratory practices. No liability will be accepted for death, injury or damage arising from experimentation using any information or materials supplied.