I was sitting in the garden a while back enjoying the weather and discussing politics with a group of family and friends when the subject of a piece in a well-known newspaper came up and my niece said to my mother: “Sorry, Nan, I don’t EVER want to read an article in the Daily M***, I rather read anything…anything …even a history of hosepipes” So to make sure she always has an alternative here it is!
There is as yet no definitive history of hosepipe, [no surprise there really] or any more than a couple of lines in any garden history book so if anyone out there is looking for an unusual PhD topic here’s your big chance…until then you’ll have to make do with this!
As usual it all supposed to have begun with the Greeks. The internet is full of stories of Apollodorus, who is said to have attached one end of an ox’s intestine to a bladder filled with water. Pressing the bladder forced the water through the ox-gut and could be directed “to high places exposed to fiery darts.” Leaving aside the unlikelihood of that being terribly effective and that I can’t find a translation of that – or any image – would allow me to feel comfortable with verifying this tale, the real story of hosepipe begins in late 17thc Amsterdam with a Dutch painter and engraver named Jan van der Heyden.
Dutch painter & hosepipe sounds an equally unlikely connection but Jan also turned his hand to engineering, and with his brother Nicholas who was a hydraulics engineer [a very important occupation in a country in permanent need of drainage and flood control] he improved both street lighting and fire fighting in the city. This included trying to find a way of improving water supply at fires. Incredible though it might sound they made a tube out of leather relying on tight sewing to hold it together, and with brass fittings to allow sections of tube to be joined up. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t a complete success! The pipes leaked and the stitching burst under pressure and of course the tubes were heavy and incredibly cumbersome as well as being ineffective. Back to the drawing board!
Attempt 2 in 1698 used another Dutch speciality, canvas sailcloth. As you can imagine it too has problems! It needs to be sealed to make it thoroughly waterproofed and a range of methods were used to try and do that, usually with a mix of oils and other substances. In the 18thc attempts were made to use other textiles such as linen and hemp but with the same problem and as late as the mid-19thc patents were still being taken out for techniques to make canvas etc impermeable. These days although textile hose is still available in many parts of the world it’s only in highly refined versions for firefighting and industrial uses.
The scene now switches to Philadelphia where in 1808 some firefighters tried to improve on this basic leather tubing system. Instead of stitches they used 20-30 metal rivets per foot (65-100 rivets per meter) to try and eliminate leaks. Despite the enormously heavy weight – a standard 50m length weighed 36kg – without any water in it – and the fact that it needed constant oiling to keep it pliable and to prevent it cracking it was more successful and the idea was patented in 1817, and continued to be used right through until the 1870s.
What everyone had overlooked that there had been two potential alternative materials available to replace leather and both had long been known about in the west.
The first had been known about to the indigenous people of central and south America, for over 3000 years was seen by Hernando Cortes during the conquest of Mexico in 1519, but, like almost all of the indigenous knowledge was generally ignored by the Spanish. The material was a form of latex and had been used for all sorts of purposes including waterproofing. Even later when its potential was better understood the latex could not easily be transported. It wasn’t until 1761 that someone had the bright idea of dissolving it in turpentine and shipping back to Europe as a solution. It was the great English chemist Joseph Priestly who, in 1770, coined the name we still use for it – “India Rubber” – when he used a piece for rubbing out unwanted lines in a drawing.
India Rubber was soon widely used as a sealant and waterproofing agent. In about 1819 a London coach builder named Thomas Hancock began experimenting with rubber to laminate fabric and make waterproofing for his coaches. He soon branched out and patented rubber-treated gloves and shoes and then a machine for chopping up leftover rubber so that it could be re-used. Hancock was granted a total of ’16 patents‘ relating to rubber between 1820 and 1847.
But others were experimenting too including .a certain Charles Mackintosh who had also patented a method of waterproofing by dissolving rubber using coal waste, and discovered that you could spread it thinly on fabric and make rain-resistant clothes. . Eventually, to cut a long story short Hancock and Mackintosh joined forces and business boomed
The patent granted to Hancock in 1824 was effectively for an artificial replacement for leather. Later patents improved this and one of things he began to manufacture was flexible pipe capable of carrying liquids. This was used first in breweries and then adopted by The Norwich Union Insurance company for use on their fire engines instead of leather. But it wasn’t the perfect solution because untreated rubber gets sticky and melts in hot weather, and when it was used in conjunction with fabric that tended to go mouldy.
Now Hancock had a stroke of luck. While he was experimenting with ways of strengthening the rubber he was sent samples of rubber that had been treated.
They came from Charles Goodyear of Ohio who was also experimenting with ways of hardening rubber sufficiently to solve the problem. He had somehow worked out that if raw rubber was heated with sulphur and lead oxide – a process he named Vulcanisation – this stopped but it remained waterproof and pliable. But he hadn’t cracked the problem entirely. Hancock worked out where Goodyear was going wrong, and and in November 1843 patented the improvements, just a few weeks ahead of Goodyear in the Unite States.
It proved the turning point. Thomas was, for example, the first to use solid rubber tyres on his carriage and soon rubber became part of everyday life.
But there was also a second material’. It too had been long known about in the west. A sample of what was called “the plyable Mazer wood”. was listed inTradescant’s Ark in 1656. However no-one realised its extraordinary properties until 1842, when it was “rediscovered” and “reintroduced” by …….well the choice of ‘discoverer’ or rather ‘introducer to the west’ is yours. [Skip the next para or two if the minutiae of this sounds dull!]
It’s a bit like waiting for a bus and then 3 come along at once and it’s actually impossible to know who was first. In 1854 The Illustrated Magazine of Art began an article about it by saying that “like photography and the new planet, this product seems to have more than one discoverer – Dr William Montgomerie, assistant-surgeon in the Presidency of Singapore, and Mr Thomas Lobb, botanical agent to Messrs Veitch, the well-known florists of Exeter, each claiming the discovery as their own though each was miles distant from, and acting independently of the other.” In fact the magazine overlooked the claims of a third : Jose d’Alameida a Portuguese doctor originally from Macau, but who had moved to the new settlement of Singapore in 1824.
Despite Tradescant’s description of this material it isn’t wood but another latex. Lobb found the tree that produced it on his plant hunting travels in the East Indies, and sent specimens back to Kew, but obviously did not understand its economic potential and showed no further interest. The other two candidates to be the “discoverer” were friends and in early 1843 both of them wrote about it.
Montgomerie sent specimens back to London whilst d’Alameida actually took some there in person and presented them to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. However, as so often only one gets the credit while the other is overlooked entirely. In this case it is Montgomerie who, being British, obviously got the honour but if you want to see the ins and outs of the debate then it was reported at length in the 1858 Journal of the Society of Arts.
So following tradition here’s the story from Montgomerie’s viewpoint. He is supposed to have seen an unusual handle on a padang – a sort of machete – which “upon inquiry he found it was made of a substance the native called gutta percha.” Gutta is the Malay word for “the gum or juice” of a plant and Percha is the name of the particular tree: The tree was formally named by William Hooker, Director of Kew, in 1847.
Dr Montgomerie forwarded samples to the Asiatic Society of Bengal and to London because he “at once concluded that if procurable in large quantities it would become extremely useful.”
Gutta percha has the same chemical composition as rubber but the way the molecular structure is arranged give it a different set of properties. That means the semi-transparent latex can be rolled very thinly and as it sets, it hardens and becomes extremely tough and dense like wood, so Tradescant can be excused. Its economic importance comes from the fact that when put in hot water it becomes pliable, and in boiling water ductile and capable of being moulded to any shape or form. Crucially too it is impermeable and doesn’t shrink or revert on cooling.
Gutta percha took scientific and industrial circles in London by storm. Several books were written about its discovery and properties. By 1844 within a year of the arrival of samples patents were being taken out for all sorts of of potential uses such as in boot and shoe making, for waterproof clothing and even bookbinding. Charles Hancock, one of Thomas’s brothers used it for making artificial corks for bottles, using a machine devised by yet another brother Walter. That invention came to the attention of Henry Bewley, a soda-water manufacturer in Dublin. Bewley had already devised several uses for gutta percha as well as a tube-making machine. They agreed to work the patent jointly and set set up the Gutta Percha Company. Bewley soon got the upper hand in the business and Charles and Walter set up the rival West Ham Gutta Percha Company. There’s a full account of all this on Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
Meanwhile Bewley began to manufacture a long list of products including buckets, drinking mugs, lifebuoys, flasks, washing bowls, siphons, carboys, jugs, soles for boots and shoes, and driving bands for machinery …. and tubing. In 1845 the company started making the first reasonably flexible hosepipe.
Gutta percha could be extruded in a range of diameters and to almost any length up to 100 yards, and could be supplied with brass couplings to extend it. But it was still heavy and there was a tendency to crack when dry so it required occasional oiling as well.
Its greatest use came after Michael Faraday suggested it as an electrical insulator. By 1847 Siemens were using it to insulate telegraph cables which opened the way for underwater cables and soon the world’s ocean floors were criss-crossed with submarine telegraph lines protected by gutta percha cladding.
Unfortunately it was so much in demand that it caused an environmental disaster. The local and sustainable methods of tapping the latex were ignored and instead the trees were simply chopped down and left to rot after the first flush of latex had been drained: after all it was just another natural resource to be exploited for imperial gain.
An average 80 foot tall tree yielded only about 3lbs of latex. Between 1845 and 1847 nearly 70,000 trees were cut down on Singapore island alone. In the process the species was almost wiped out on the Malay peninsula.
So… by the mid-1840s we have two kinds of “modern” hose in production, alongside canvas and leather, and a series of complicated business and patent disputes – all too complex to go into. But as far as garden use is concerned we’re still in the realms of the unlikely because extensive use of hosepipe in the garden was only possible once there was an adequate supply of water – which in most cases meant from pressurised water mains. But by a stroke of luck improvements in water supply were also beginning around this time So that gradually gardeners could say goodbye to hand watering from cans or on a larger scale from water barrels.
By the time Great Exhibition of 1851 vulcanized rubber had won the battle of materials for hosepipe. Both the Gutta-Percha Company and its West Ham counterpart exhibited but Thomas Hancock’s nephew James Lyne Hancock who was running the London factory had already specialised in making pipe, tubes and hose in vulcanized rubber … including “Hose-reel with garden-hose attached”.
It took a while to catch on. Indeed, even by the 1870s, one may think it had never been invented because The Journal of Horticulture ran an article on advances in watering methods – such as this “watering apparatus … designed to economise on labour” -and there isn’t even a mention of garden hoses.
But once mains water was more widely available which was increasingly the case from then on its just a question of increasingly sophisticated technology. Nozzles and other jets became standardized around 1830, while the first patent I can see for a sprinkler attachment was issued in 1871, although they don’t become common until after the First World War. Linking sections of hose with brass couplings was copied from fire-fighting equipment where a standard format had been introduced as early as 1816. The current usual method – the snap-on coupling – was only introduced as recently as 1968 by Gardena.
After that the history of hosepipe becomes a bit dull [or do I mean duller?] . Rubber continued to rule until the early 1950s after which it was rapidly unseated by plastic, then lightweight plastic and reinforced kink-proof plastic. until one wouldn’t have thought that there was much else one could do to improve hosepipe. But one would be wrong because in 2011 Michael Berardi invented the X-hose an expandable garden hose -which aimed to solve the problems of weight, kinking and storage. Apparently a 75-foot roll will fit in a small flowerpot. Has anyone tried it? And will it replace what has become the standard?
I wonder what Thomas Hancock would have thought?
For more information on Thomas try his Personal Narrative  or the biography of the family The Hancocks of Marlborough by John Loadman & Francis James .