Autumn has arrived, winter is upon us. The wet and cold season can be very multiform. But, as the saying goes, there is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing. So, you couch potatoes, watch out: When the rain falls from the sky, pull the raincoat over and out into the fresh air. Dry feet, figuratively speaking, thanks to the British chemist Charles Macintosh (1766-1843), who knew how to use the water repellent benefits of polymer materials in the clothing industry effectively and profitably.
Macintosh is a name that stands for quality. And for a change, what is meant here is not the eponymous “Mac” computer manufactured by the US company Apple, but something that is no less than a classically British – or more accurately Scottish – product. We are talking here about the first “raincoat” in the history of textiles. If one is to believe the sources, the invention of the raincoat can be attributed to Charles Macintosh (1766 – 1843), a chemist who came from Scotland.
How everything began
Charles Macintosh. (Source: Wikipedia)
It seems to be the case, however, that the history of the raincoat did not begin with Charles Macintosh himself but with Sir James Syme (1799 – 1870), a Scottish doctor, who made a particular name for himself as an anatomist and surgeon; a method for amputating the foot when heel problems occur is, for example, named after him.
Sir James Syme was apparently a man with widespread interests. He moved not merely in medical spheres, where he enjoyed an impressive career without even completing an official course of study; he was also active in such natural sciences as chemistry, where he focussed – among other things – on the production of waterproof textile dyes. Charles Macintosh recognised the potential of what Sir James Syme was developing in his laboratory and acquired his patent.
At the time, Macintosh was experimenting with a waste product of black coal gasification, from which he extracted ammonium, that he needed to manufacture a violet-red dye. A by-product of this process was coal tar naphtha, a kind of solvent that – interestingly enough – did not mix with water. Macintosh mused briefly and then took action. He coated / impregnated thin layers of cotton with the liquid and at the end of the day produced a rubbery fabric that was impermeable to water.
A good idea
Although he must have been delighted to discover the waterproof properties, this was, however, spoiled to some extent by what could be described as “minor” faults: the material was incredibly sticky and stank abominably.
Macintosh made a virtue out of necessity and resorted to sandwich technology. He overcame the problem of stickiness by coating a textile web and taking advantage of the sticky layer to laminate it to another textile web. The result was a water-repellent, double-layer material that was no longer sticky and was easy to handle. He filed a patent for this in 1823.
The abominable rubber odour that the fabric released continued to be a problem; traditional rain jackets still smell very strange to this day. Despite this, Macintosh’ development received an enthusiastic reception from such users as the British armed forces, which evidently considered this to be an opportunity to protect their soldiers against rain more effectively and to maintain the troops’ morale and fighting skills even in unfavourable weather conditions.
Capable partner on the path to success
Source: Ladies Home Journal (October, 1913)
It was not long before Thomas Hancock (1786 – 1865), the founder of the British rubber industry, saw the potential of the invention and acquired a licence from Charles Macintosh to produce double-layer, waterproof materials. Hancock had, incidentally, found out that rubber becomes plastic and formable when it is rolled, a property that enabled rubber to be used on an industrial scale. On the basis of the vulcanisation process developed by Charles Goodyear (1800 – 1860), an American chemist and inventor of such products as hard rubber (ebonite), Hancock designed and built rubber processing machines. To make sure that a complete picture is presented, it should be mentioned here that the two of them – Goodyear and Hancock – had filed a patent for the vulcanisation process. In a subsequent patent dispute, priority was assigned to Goodyear.
So Thomas Hancock took Charles Macintosh’ invention, i.e. the impregnation of textiles, and improved it via the vulcanisation process for which he filed a patent application in 1843. Initial problems with rubberisation, such as the intensive odour, stiffness and poor washability in hot water, were overcome. The authentic Macintosh raincoats were entirely hand-made and had glued rather than sewn seams. An interesting fact on the side: in the course of time, it became more common to spell the name with “ck”, probably due to the fact that the brand name needed to be publicised not only in England but also worldwide and/or because spelling it with “ck” was more usual at the international level.
Macintosh recognised what his licensee Hancock had achieved and invited him to join his company Charles Macintosh & Co. as a partner in 1831. It was the start of a long and successful partnership. The names Macintosh (“mac”) and Mackintosh (“mack”) still guarantee excellent rain clothing, the origins of which all the way back to 1824, to this day.
What happened next
As time went on, other companies entered the rain clothing business. Such as the company established by and named after John Barbour (1849 – 1918) in South Shields (north-east England) in 1894. Like Charles Macintosh or Sir James Syme, John Barbour was a Scotsman and was presumably fed up with all the rain in his home country. There is practically no other explanation for why he should have concentrated on the production of rain clothing too.
Barbour waxed jackets are expensive and enjoy a good reputation all over the world – not only with hunters and anglers. The weatherproof waxed jackets are manufactured from cotton or blended cotton fabric that is impregnated with a mixture of wax and oil or exclusively with wax.
The master tailor Johann Klepper added rain clothing to his sports and outdoor range in Germany around 1920. According to the company, the inventor of the Klepper folding kayak set “a milestone in German textile history” with what is known as the Klepper coat. The Klepper website explains: “This rubber-coated cotton coat was worn by numerous people in wet weather for decades. The Klepper coat was at the time one of the first items of clothing to be acknowledged as “absolutely waterproof”.
The Klepper coat was, however, anything but breathable, i.e. one sweated like a pig when wearing it. This bothered Johann Klepper, as the Klepper company reports: “In 1949 he optimised his invention and added an ingenious system of ventilation channels known as “Rillo ventilation”. This innovation made sure that the air circulated considerably better from now on. The legendary rubber-coated Klepper coat continued to be manufactured in many different forms until 1969 as a result.
Trend towards rain jackets made out of PVC
From 1950 onwards, more and more rain jackets were produced using polyvinyl chloride (PVC), about which we will be reporting in detail at a later date. One of probably the most well-known forms of rainproof clothing was the oilskin, which was extremely popular with professional fishermen and sailors, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. The textile substrate material was made from polyester developed by Du Pont, which was made waterproof by the PVC coating and unmissably conspicuous by the bright yellow colour chosen in most cases.
Waterproof clothing like the oilskin keeps one pretty dry even when it is pouring with rain – as long as one does not have to move. Because one thing is obvious: anyone who sits underneath a sheet of plastic film – to use a simplified picture – does not get wet from the outside. He or she does, however, have to live with the sweat that condenses on the inside of the film (as Johann Klepper already found out). This problem is solved, if the raincoat is “breathable”, which many of the synthetic materials incorporated in sports and leisure clothing nowadays are. These polymer materials do not have ventilation openings; instead of this, they have a membrane (Goretex, Sympatex etc.) which is more or less semi-permeable and means: sweat is transported from the inside to the outside via pores in the material. Rainwater does not, however, get inside through these pores.
What is important is not just the material but also knowing how to use it sensibly. The plastics and rubber industry does not merely work with what are probably the most innovative materials there are; in addition to this, it employs what are also probably the smartest and most creative material experts. Good prospects for the future ...