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This edited article about Charles Macintosh originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 372 published on 1 March 1969.
When it rained, up to just over 150 years ago, people in the streets without umbrellas got wet. In a downpour, those riding on the outside of stage-coaches were drenched. Waterproof clothing, as we know it today, was as yet only an idea in the mind of Charles Macintosh, a Scottish chemist.
Macintosh, born in Glasgow in 1766, was experimenting with two thicknesses of cloth cemented together by a rubbery solution which he made by dissolving rubber in naphtha. He was finding uses for the by-products of coal-gas manufacture, and the naphtha was one of these.
After patenting his material in 1823, Macintosh tried to interest tailors in making it into waterproof cloaks. But the tailors ignored his advice on how to make capes and cloaks and made ordinary greatcoats instead. These were a failure because the rain seeped in between the seams.
Angry at the stubbornness of the tailors, Macintosh and his partner, Thomas Hancock, decided to make the garments themselves. They had opened a factory in Manchester to make the cloth, and there they made their first raincoat – a circular cape made in one piece to avoid leaky seams. This was a boon to stage-coach drivers and passengers riding on outside seats because it meant that, for the first time, they could travel and keep dry.
Then the railways began spreading through the country, and the trade for waterproof capes fell off considerably, because rail travellers were not exposed to the weather like people on stage-coaches. Nevertheless, there was still a good demand for rain-cloaks and a firm of cloth manufacturers began imitating Macintosh’s material.
Macintosh began a court action to stop them stealing his patent. Several of the most famous scientific men of the day gave evidence at his trial.
Victory in this court action brought fame to Macintosh and made his rain-cloaks popular through the land. They were so successful that a writer, John Murray, recommended them in his Murray’s Handbook for Travellers which was read by many wealthy and important people.
Murray wrote, “A Mackintosh cloak is almost indispensable for travel and is difficult to obtain abroad.”
The introduction of the “k” into Macintosh’s name stayed to make the new spelling a part of our language. More and more people began buying Mackintosh cloaks and soon a rain-cape, cloak or coat began to be called a Mackintosh, which is the name we still use today.