by David Isle

As necessity is the mother of invention, the nature of a country's inventions can tell you a lot about the pregnant necessities they have running around. For example, the cocktail received entrepreneurial attentions during Prohibition in the United States, when the bathtub gin available at the time was so distasteful that it required mixers to cloak its flavor. Or the adoption of the cummerbund among British military officers in India, which was an effort to combat the local heat and humidity. And so it was that Charles Macintosh invented the process of waterproofing fabric by rubberizing it in Glasgow, Scotland, whose Wikipedia page informs us that “Long dry spells of warm weather are generally very scarce.”

Macintosh (the “k” was inserted by later writers, and adopted by the company once it became hopeless to fight against the tide of common usage) was young clerk who spent his free time playing around with tar, naphtha, and rubber. He must have been a fine smelling individual. He was also a successful chemist. In 1823, he patented a process for bonding melted rubber to wool, which made the fabric waterproof. He founded the company Macintosh to sell his fabric to raincoat makers.

Traditionalists – including myself – sometimes idealize earlier methods of production, and mourn the expedience of our modern methods. This is not one of those times. In the early years, Macintosh cloth was stiff, smelly, and prone to melting in the heat.

But these problems only led to further inventions. Macintosh merged with the clothing company Thomas Hancock in 1830 and began to produce their own ready-to-wear coats. Hancock invented a method of vulcanizing rubber which solved much of the stiffness, smell, and melting problems. They also started using cotton instead of wool, whose oils had a tendency to break down the rubber. They also learned how to tape and glue seams to resist the elements more than stitches alone.

The Mackintosh brand is so closely associated with the raincoat in Britain that the word “mac” or “mack” can refer to a raincoat of any kind (just as “band-aid” can refer to generically manufactured bandages, although it began as a brand name) – for example in the Beatles classic 'Penny Lane'. After a near-death experience and subsequent rescue by its own employees in the mid-90s, Mackintosh is still making raincoats in Scotland, for people everywhere who find themselves in the pouring rain.