Gutta-percha (Palaquium) is a genus of tropical trees native to Southeast Asia and northern Australasia, from Taiwan south to the Malay Peninsula and east to the Solomon Islands. It is also an inelastic natural latex produced from the sap of these trees, particularly from the species Palaquium gutta. Chemically, gutta-percha is a polyterpene, a polymer of isoprene, or polyisoprene, specifically (trans-1,4-polyisoprene).
The trees are 5–30 metres tall and up to 1 metre in trunk diameter. The leaves are evergreen, alternate or spirally arranged, simple, entire, 8–25 cm long, and glossy green above, often yellow or glaucous below. The flowers are produced in small clusters along the stems, each flower with a white corolla with 4–7 (mostly 6) acute lobes. The fruit is an ovoid 3–7 cm berry, containing 1–4 seeds; in many species the fruit is edible.
Western inventors discovered the properties of gutta-percha latex in 1842, although the local population in its Malayan habitat had used it for a variety of applications for centuries. Allowing this fluid to evaporate and coagulate in the sun produced a latex which could be made flexible again with hot water, but which did not become brittle, unlike unvulcanized rubber already in use.
By 1845, telegraph wires insulated with gutta-percha were being manufactured in Great Britain. Gutta-percha served as the insulating material for some of the earliest undersea telegraph cables, including the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Gutta-percha was particularly suitable for this purpose, as it was not attacked by marine plants or animals, a problem which had disabled previous undersea cables.
In the mid-nineteenth century, gutta-percha was also used to make furniture, notably by the Gutta-Percha Company (established in 1847). Several of these highly ornate, revival-style pieces were shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition. Molded furniture forms, emulating carved wood, were attacked by proponents of the design reform movement who advocated truth to materials. It was also used to make "mourning" jewelry because it was dark in color and could be easily carved into beads or other shapes.
The material was quickly adopted for numerous other applications. The "guttie" golf ball (which had a solid gutta-percha core) revolutionized the game. Gutta-percha remained an industrial staple well into the 20th century, when it was gradually replaced with superior (generally synthetic) materials, though a similar and cheaper natural material called balatá is often used in gutta-percha's place. The two materials are almost identical, and balatá is often called gutta-balatá.
The same bio-inertness property that made it suitable for marine cables also means it does not readily react within the human body, and consequently it is used for a variety of surgical devices and for dental applications including padding inside fillings or inside the root-canal during root canal therapy. It was also used as pistol grips for the same reason.
Gutta percha is the predominant material used to obturate, or fill the empty space of, a tooth after it has undergone endodontic therapy. Its physical and chemical properties, including but not limited to its inertness and biocompatibility, melting point, ductility and malleability afford it an important role in the field of endodontics.
- The cane that Congressman Preston Brooks used to beat Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate was made out of gutta-percha wood.
- Gutta-percha was featured in the pilot movie Cocoon for the long-running television series Hawaii Five-O. The criminal Wo Fat used it to seal the eyes, nose and ears of his victims.
- In the movie Gorky Park, a forensic dentist identifies a murder victim as an American because he had a root canal filled with gutta percha, which was not used in Europe for that purpose. In reality, gutta-percha is indeed used in Europe .
- Up until the 1950s, gutta-percha was applied to ropes used in British executions to avoid a metal component catching and marking the skin. (Nooses for execution were not the classic "hangman's noose" but simple loops formed by pulling one end through an eye splice. The eye was made up around a brass ring to allow for freer movement.) It was later replaced with Vulcanised Rubber due to gutta-percha's tendency to splinter when cold.
- "Gutties" is an old Scottish slang term for gymshoes, from the rubber soles made from gutta-percha.
- Gutta-percha was one of the materials used to contain very strong acids since it is unreactive to these reagents.
- "Gutta-Percha Willie" was a short novel by Scotch novelist George MacDonald about a young boy who was a kind of mechanical genius, able to learn many trades.
- In Jules Verne's books From the Earth to the Moon and Purchase of the North Pole the mathematical genius J.T. Maston had a gutta-percha covering on his skull. Maston was a Civil War veteran in the stories and had a damaged skull, which the gutta-percha helped protect.
- In J M Barrie's Book The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens (1902) the character Irene has a false front tooth made from gutta-percha. Initially she replaced the original tooth after it fell out by hammering it back into her gum with a hairbrush, but once it deteriorated to a point where it was unusable she used the gutta-percha false tooth instead.
- Germplasm Resources Information Network: Palaquium
- Gutta-percha on the Transatlantic cable site
- The Gutta Percha Company on the History of the Atlantic Cable site