Saturday, October 12, 2013

Just a Mac to Keep You Dry

My distant kinswoman the British poet/memoirist/chef Geraldine Murfin-Shaw a/k/a Val Kirkham models a classic Mac and stylish purple boots in her famous garden.


On October 12, 1823 Charles Macintosh, a 53 year old Scott, sold the first of his breakthrough new raincoats, sure to be a hit in the soggy British Isles.  He was a clerk as a young man who dabbled with science on the side.  By the age of twenty, he set himself up in business as a manufacturer of chemicals.  His inventive mind developed dozens of new products and processes making him a very successful man. 

But Macintosh really hit pay dirt with his experiments with naphtha, a volatile light weight by-product of coal tar.  He discovered that India rubber could be made soluble in naphtha.  This led to an application to coat fabrics with the rubber.  Eventually he patented a fabric made of two thicknesses of rubber bonded together.  After securing the patent, his company, Charles Macintosh and Co. went into production of raincoats.

Realizing the waterproof nature of rubber or latex, there had been many attempts to use it in practical rain gear over many years.  During the American Revolution the young Marquis de Lafayette had arrived in the rebellious colonies with a rubber raincoat packed in baggage.  Unfortunately, he had wrapped the coat in newspaper, which stuck to the gummy surface.  He made a comical sight as he galloped from Philadelphia for his first meeting with General Washington with scraps of paper stuck to his coat.

That was a common problem with earlier attempts at using rubber in fabric.  Macintosh’s product solved many of these problems.  But not all.  There were still problems of odor, stiffness in cold weather, and gumminess in heat.  In 1830 he merged his company with a competitor, Thomas Hancock in Manchester.  Hancock had been doing his own experiments with rubber since 1813.

In 1853 Hancock took a patent out on a process to stabilize rubber with sulfur at a high temperature.  This process was discovered independently in the United States by Charles Goodyear in 1839 and patented by him in 1844, but not published until Goodyear published a book on the subject in 1854.  He called the process vulcanization, which came to be applied to Hancock’s process as well.

With the old problems finally entirely eliminated, sales really took off.  The coats were known by the name of their first inventor, but at some time the spelling of the garments morphed to Mackintosh.  They were favored by those whose work required them to be out in bad weather for extended time while keeping both hands free for labor.  City folks who mostly worked indoors continued their undying affection for the umbrella and overcoats of tightly woven cloth for protection.  

Farmers, fishermen, construction workers, teamsters, and firemen on both sides of the Atlantic soon swore by their Mac coats and other raingear—pants, hats, capes, etc.

Mackintosh and its successor companies continued to make and market their coats, which were also copied by other manufacturers.  But other methods of waterproofing fabrics and the development of light weight plastic alternatives eroded the marked.  By the 1990s the company plant near Glasgow was in danger of shutting down.

Investor and entrepreneur Daniel Dunko acquired the troubled company and opened up new markets by partnering with top fashion including Gucci, Herm├Ęs, and Louis Vuitton to design up-scale, fashionable rainwear for women and men featuring bold colors and bright prints.  These coats were especially successful in Japan winning a Queens Award for Enterprise in 2000 for opening up new international markets for a British product.

In 2007 the honored British brand was purchased by Yagi Tsusho, a Japanese firm.

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