Henry Bewley

The Gutta-percha Pioneer

Today is the birthday of the gutta-percha pioneer Henry Bewley who was born on this day in Dublin, Ireland. A trained chemist, Bewley began work manufacturing soda water. Bewley's work with soda got him in touch with Charles Hancock, who was eager to develop a stopper for bottles. Hancock's solution came to him in the form of gutta-percha - a tough, rubber-like substance that had been discovered in the sap of Malayasian trees and brought to England in the mid-1840s. After Hancock showed Bewley the gutta-percha, he set about inventing the machine that would extrude the gutta-percha into tubing, which would ultimately find a purpose in dentistry and as an insulator for electrical wiring.

Although their partnership would not last, Bewley and Hancock formed the Gutta Percha Company in London on February 4, 1845. Twenty years later, Bewley's company was swept up in the merger that created The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. Until the mid-1900s, it was gutta-percha that protected the transatlantic cables used for communication.

The resin from gutta-percha was used to make all kinds of items like buckets and mugs, soles for shoes, bands for heavy equipment, buoys, and so forth. Early on, the uses for gutta-percha seemed endless - but its original use as tubing (thanks to Bewley) was vital for scientists and engineers working with wiring, liquids, and gases. Gardeners owed a debt of gratitude to Bewley. His gutta-percha tubing was perfect for this in-demand item called a garden hose.

I thought you might enjoy hearing a little excerpt from this 1854 advertisement for gutta-percha. It features a testimony from a Mr. J. Farrah, the gardener to a successful attorney who lived on the estate known as Holderness House near Hull.

“I have 400 feet of your gutta-percha tubing in lengths of 100 feet each [and  I have used them] for the past 12 months for watering these gardens and I find it... better than anything I have ever yet tried. The pressure of the water is very considerable, but this has not the slightest effect on the tubing.

I consider this tubing to be a most valuable invention for gardeners, as much as it enables us to water our gardens in about half the time and with half the labor formerly required.”

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Henry Bewley
Henry Bewley

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