An AC transformer is just a couple of coils of wire around a hunk of iron. There’s no simple DC transformer. Changing high voltage DC to anything else (including a lower voltage DC) requires more complex machinery at either end of the line, which is very expensive.
On the plus side, AC wires, insulation, standoffs, etc. all have to be designed for the peak voltage, but the actual power you get through the wires is RMS. High voltage DC on the other hand always runs at peak, so for a given set of wires, etc. you can always push more power through the line using DC. Or to put it a slightly different way, for the same amount of power, you need more expensive wires, insulation, etc. for AC than DC.
So you have always had a tradeoff. The “transformers” on either end of the line are significantly more expensive for DC, but the wires are cheaper for DC. So if the line is long enough, DC is actually cheaper. Exactly how long is “long enough” has varied over the years, with practical DC systems needing shorter and shorter wire distances to break even with AC.
There are also inductive and capacitive losses (aka reactive losses) in wires, which are proportional to the rate of change of the voltage and current. For AC, these losses are significant. For DC, since the voltage and current are basically constant, you basically eliminate the reactive losses. Again, this makes DC more attractive, though you still have the added expense of the transformers and switchgear at both ends.
Reactive losses are even more significant under water, so undersea and other underwater cables have a big incentive to use DC over AC.
Speaking of switchgear, DC switchgear is much more expensive. At high voltages, when you open a switch, the electricity will arc across the open switch contacts. AC arcing naturally extinguishes itself since the AC voltage drops to zero twice during the AC sine wave cycle. DC isn’t naturally extinguishing, and will draw an arc over a very impressive distance at high voltages. This makes it much more difficult to design a high voltage DC switch, so again, much more expense.
Improvements in DC swtichgear and semiconductor-based DC transformers, rectifiers, and inverters have all reduced the equipment cost at either end of the line, but DC lines still require very expensive gear on either end, so don’t expect to see DC lines used for electricity distribution any time soon. But for point to point transmission over long distances, DC lines work well, and have for decades.
As for when high voltage DC first became a thing, that was way way way back in the late 1800s. Fancy shmancy semiconductors hadn’t been invented yet, so they used huge clunky mechanical motor-generator sets to do the AC to DC and DC to AC conversions. Expensive and inefficient, but it worked.
Thyristor-based semiconductors for high voltage DC were invented in the 1960s and started to be used in practical systems in the early 1970s.