Did the Scottish Chemist Charles Macintosh Really Invent the Raincoat?
Living in Scotland before 1824 was hard. There are more rainy days than dry ones in the country, and unless you had an umbrella – a rarity at the time – going outside landed you with the serious risk of being soaked through. Most ways of waterproofing clothes at the time involved oiled fabrics, which were heavy, not to mention foul-smelling. That was until the chemist Charles Macintosh and his invention of waterproof material, which led to the modern raincoat.
Charles Macintosh FRS (29 December 1766 – 25 July 1843) was a Scottish chemist and inventor of waterproof fabrics. The Mackintosh raincoat (the variant spelling is now standard) is named for him. Macintosh was born in Glasgow, the son of George Macintosh and Mary Moore.
Charles Macintosh’s family moved to Glasgow when he was just 11 so that his father could set up a factory, and though the young Macintosh was originally employed as a clerk, he grew up during the Scottish enlightenment and devoted as much time as he could to chemistry.
His experiments with one of the by-products of tar, naphtha, led to his invention of waterproof fabrics, the essence of his patent being the cementing of two thicknesses of cloth together with natural (India) rubber, the rubber being made soluble by the action of the naphtha.
The technology had problems at first: putting stitching in the material could lead it to let water in, and it could get stiff in hot weather. Tailors refused to go near it, and Macintosh set up his own company, which was later merged with that of Thomas Hancock, who had a system many saw as superior, especially once it started to use vulcanized rubber, which improves its durability.
In 1823, Macintosh was granted a patent on the waterproof fabric. It was later claimed, however, that he had copied the method from James Syme, a Scottish surgeon. For his various chemical discoveries he was, in 1823, elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1828, he became a partner with James Beaumont Neilson in a firm to exploit the latter’s patent for the hot blast blowing of blast furnaces, which saved considerably on their fuel consumption.
Macintosh married, in 1790, Mary Fisher, daughter of Alexander Fisher a merchant of Glasgow. They had one son, George Macintosh (1791-1848). Charles Macintosh died in 1843 at Dunchattan, Scotland, and was buried in the churchyard of Glasgow Cathedral.
He is buried with his parents in the ground of his great grandfather, John Anderson of Douhill, Lord Provost of Glasgow. His name is added to the impressive 17th century monument which stands against the eastern boundary wall. A secondary memorial also exists (in polished red granite, dating from the late 19th century) slightly to the north, where Charles is again mentioned on the grave of his son George.
Although raincoats ended up in many different guises and styles, and the Mac became an all-encompassing term, the Mackintosh Company (the k was added by many writers, and stuck) continued. It was bought by Dunlop Rubber in 1925 and continues to the present day despite being on the brink of closure in the 1990s, and its coats now sell for hundreds of pounds after a move up market.
You may not know
The Mackintosh Company – which dates back to Charles Macintosh had sales of £7.8m in the year to March 2016, with much of its growth in Japan
Although Macintosh is unsurprisingly best known for his waterproof clothing inventions, he also invented a bleaching powder and figured out a way to make blast furnaces more efficient
The Apple Macintosh – the 1984 computer that started the Mac line – bears no tribute to the Scottish inventor. It was named after the McIntosh, the favorite Apple of Jef Raskin, and Apple couldn’t use the spelling because of an audio company with the same name.