A Victorian Ecological Disaster: Imperialism, the Telegraph, and Gutta-Percha


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.