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Charles Macintosh: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Charles Macintosh, the Scottish chemist who invented waterproof materials, leading to the modern raincoat, is being celebrated with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 250th birthday.

“Today’s Doodle shows Macintosh enjoying a Scottish rain shower whilst testing his ingenious invention,” Google says.

Here’s what you need to know about Macintosh:


1. He Was Born in Glasgow, Where His Father Was a Dye-Maker & Merchant Who Found a Way to Use People’s Urine for Profit

Charles Macintosh. (Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Macintosh. (Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Macintosh was born December 29, 1766, in Glasgow, Scotland. He was the son of George Macintosh, a merchant, and Mary Moore, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.

Macintosh attended school in England, before returning home to begin his career. He began working as a clerk in Glasgow for a local merchant at a young age, and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but instead spent most of his spare time focusing on science, his true love.

His merchant father also had a background in science and manufacturing, as a dye maker.

“His father originally came from the Highlands, moving to Glasgow to set up a factory in Dennistoun in 1777 to manufacture a violet-red dying powder made from lichens (cudbear),” according to the University of Strathclyde’s Science on the Streets website.

Charles Macintosh would travel around Europe to find licehns, flowers and plants for potential colors and materials, and to meet with potential business partners for his father, Cynthia Barnett writes in Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.

Another ingredient in the dye made by Macintosh’s father was ammonia, which he acquired from an unusual source.

“For many years, Macintosh’s father had paid for pee,” Barnett writes. “The poor would save up the family’s urine and hand it over to landlords when it came time for pickup by George Macintosh’s collectors. The elder Macintosh used the ammonia to manufacture cudbear, a coveted red-purple dye made from licens.”

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2. His Rainproof Cloth Helped British Explorers Survive an Expedition to the Arctic

Macintosh left his job as a clerk before he reached the age of 20 to focus on chemistry, according to Today in Science History.

He was self-taught and had a knack for the burgeoning scientific field, Cynthia Barnett writes in her book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History:

He was supposed to learn mercantile affairs and help sell his father’s goods, but his mind was captivated by chemistry. The new scientific discipline was just coming into its own, out of the miasma and superstition of alchemy. Macintosh had an ether-clear native talent for mixing and morphing its elements. At eighteen, he was corresponding with the well-known chemists – most were then physicians – of Scotland and England, inquiring about chemistry lectures and how he might make colors from vegetables. He began traveling to Edinburgh to study with Joseph Black, a medical professor who had discovered ‘fixed air,’ soon called carbon dioxide. Black, with Macintosh and some other students, formed the earliest-known chemical society. Before Macintosh turned twenty he had written society papers on alcohol, alum, crystallization and the ‘application of the blue colouring matter of vegetable bodies. He was not yet twenty-one when he quit the county house to set up his own plant to manufacture sal ammoniac, a crystalline salt in high demand to make everything from tinned copper to pharmacy cures.

His plant, opened in 1797, was the first alum works, according to the Scotsman. His plant also produced ammonium chloride and Prussian blue dye. Macintosh, about that same time, introduced the manufacture of lead and aluminum acetates to Britain, and developed a new way to dye cloth, according to The Scotsman.

Barnett writes that Macintosh picked up his father’s methods of using waste products for profit. Like his father, he collected soot and urine, extracting salt from it in his plant.

Macintosh’s most famous invention came while experimenting with the waste products from coal-gas works.

“In the ethos of his father’s generation of dye makers who sourced ammonia from Glasgow’s human urine stream, Macintosh had a nothing-wasted mind-set. His discovery of the long-sought solvent for rubber came out of his search for uses of some of the nastiest by-products of the nineteenth century progress,” Barnett writes. “Gas lamps were becoming popular in the cities of Europe, lighting up the wealthier streets and private homes. But the tar sludge left behind in the manufacture of coal gas was a public menace … Macintosh saw practical uses in the sludge and wastewater, which include valuable ammonia. In 1819, Glasgow Gas Works was only too happy to sign a contract to sell him all the waste it produced.”

According to Today in Science, the sludge led to Macintosh’s famed invention:

He utilized the ammonia in the production of cudbear, a useful dye extracted from various lichens. By varying the choice of mordant used with this dye, manufacturers could colour textiles in a range of shades from pink to blue. The tar could be distilled to produced naphtha – a volatile, oily liquid hydrocarbon mixture. Although this could be used in flares, from 1819, Macintosh continued to experiment to find more ways to utilize naphtha, so that the original tar waste could yield more value.

The invention for which Macintosh is best known came when these investigations of naphtha yielded a process for waterproofing fabric. In June 1823, Macintosh patented his process using a solution of india-rubber in naphtha soaked between two layers of cloth forming a sandwich that was pressed together. The rubber interior provided a layer impermeable to water, though still flexible. His patent, No. 4,804, described how to “manufacture for rendering the texture of hemp, flax, wool, cotton, silk, and also leather, paper and other substances impervious to water and air.”

Macintosh’s invention was met with skepticism from tailors in Glasgow, but a deal with the Royal Navy helped prove its worth. According to On This Day in Scotland, the explorer John Franklin and his crew were outfitted with the material during their exploration of the Arctic in 1824.

The British army also ordered the rainproof fabric.

He soon opened a production plant in Manchester and the coats began to be sold to the public.

Macintosh was inducted into the famed Royal Society as a fellow in 1823.

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3. The Mackintosh Raincoat Is Named for Him, Though It Is Spelled With a K

The Mackintosh raincoat, though spelled differently, is named for Macintosh. The iconic coats, which were first created with materials invented by Macintosh, are still handmade in Scotland, according to Scotland Now.

“Local tailors wanted nothing to do with the new material, so in 1840 he moved to Manchester, where his fabric was used to make raincoats that became known by his company’s name as the mackintosh. The additional letter ‘k’ is unexplained,” according to Scotland Now.

Macintosh licensed the production of the materials used to make the coats to Thomas Hancock, according to On This Day in Scotland:

In 1825, Macintosh granted a licence to Thomas Hancock, the ‘father of the UK rubber industry’, to manufacture his patented ‘waterproof double textures’. Hancock was an important contributor to the development of Macintosh’s material. He became Macintosh’s partner in 1831, and after merging his own company into the business, ran Charles Macintosh & Co. The discovery of vulcanization, initially by Charles Goodyear in 1839, and separately by Thomas Hancock in 1843, the year Charles Macintosh died, completely altered the fortunes of the company. That process solved several problems inherent in the original material, particularly its susceptibility to temperature changes. Further developments led to single texture fabrics, vulcanized using sulphur chloride, and an award-winning appearance at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The coats are made today by Mackintosh, a company founded in 1895, according to The Scotsman:

A true mackintosh coat is made from this rubberised cotton and is completely handmade with the seams glued rather than sewn for a completely watertight seal, explains managing director Daniel Dunko at the Cumbernauld plant.

‘We are the only manufacturer of Mackintosh raincoats that we know of,’ Dunko said. ‘We stick to the original method using rubber from Malaysia, made into a spreadable liquid, applied to rollers then spread like a sandwich and baked and vulcanised in a big oven. There are copies, for example Goretex, which uses the same principle but we use rubber which is better than a synthetic.’

The jacket is still evolving and has recently remerged as a major fashion trend, according to Elle. Designer Demna Gvasalia, who has worked with Mackintosh on recent jackets, called the design brilliant in an interview with Elle.

“Because of the way this garment is made. There is no stitching involved, it’s completely bonded/glued, in order to keep the garment completely waterproof,” Gvasalia said. “I owned a vintage Mac that I wore for years in my early twenties until someone stole it at a party. Even after literally doing everything to wear it out, that coat always looked immaculate.”

The British Fashion Council recently created an exhibit on the famous coat.

“The Mackintosh coat is an icon of British fashion. The first Mackintosh coat was sold in 1823 and since then the Mackintosh has come to define classic British style for close to 200 years,” Google’s Arts & Culture institute writes. “Throughout this time Mackintosh has been a part of British life; clothing not only the most elegant but also providing waterproof and durable clothing to the British Army and Police. Today Mackintosh still makes clothes in Britain but its popularity has become truly global. From humble beginnings in 1823, the Mackintosh has become known the world over.”

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4. He Was Married & Had a Son, George

Macintosh was married, in 1790, to Mary Fisher, the daughter of a Glasgow merchant, according to Britannica.

They had one son, George, who lived from 1791 to 1848.

George Macintosh worked with his father’s company, Chas. Macintosh & Co., and was a member of the company’s board of directors after his father’s death, according to Bouncing-Balls.com, a website about the history of rubber.

After George Macintosh retired from the company’s board, the Macintosh family no longer had any involvement in the management of Chas. Macintosh & Co. The company continued to be operated until 1923, when it was taken over by Dunlop.

Production at the company’s factory in Manchester continued until 2000, according to Bouncing Balls.

George Macintosh also wrote a biography about his father, which you can read here.

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5. He Died in 1843 & Was Buried at the Glasgow Cathedral

Macintosh died July 25, 1843, in Dunchattan, Scotland, according to the Dictionary of National Biography. He was buried in the churchyard at Glasgow Cathedral.

His legacy lives on in the raincoat he helped invent, according to Science on the Streets:

Although Macintosh is best known for his eponymously-titled coats, he was a brilliant chemist with achievements in many different fields. He invented a revolutionary bleaching powder (along with Charles Tennant), devised a way of using carbon gases to convert malleable iron to steel by a short-cut method, and worked out a hot-blast process with James Neilson to produce high quality cast iron.

“It’s a wonder how the weatherbeaten Brits coped before Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh invented his eponymous waterproof coat,” Google says in its description of the Doodle. “His invention, patented in 1823, came about as he experimented with coal-tar naphtha and rubber and realized they could be fused together with fabric to create a waterproof surface. These days in the U.K., it’s common to call any type of raincoat a ‘Mac.'”

According to On This Day in Scotland, “Charles Macintosh with a ‘k’ and his eponymous invention are as much a part of everyday vocabulary as sandwich, biro, hoover and google; even if posterity continues to misspell his name.”

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29 comments

    • I agree! I have often wanted to salute and thank Google for their educational and interesting alerts but never saw an opportunity before today.

  1. Five Facts Which You Need to Know:
    1. His name was Charles
    2. He breathed air
    3. The sky is blue
    4. The grass is green
    5. The world is round

  2. I agree that his accomplishments are noteworthy. Unfortunately, the Google Doodle looks more like he is being celebrated for being a man who knew how to pee in the rain…

  3. Very informative article. I appreciate the well-researched information. I wish I was still teaching 4th-5th-6th grade. Children love these interesting articles. If you are educated in the 1950’s, you might remember the reading support materials, SRA.

  4. Very interesting reading about an interesting individual as was the recent article about Roald Amundsen. More people should be interested in and concerned with important people in history rather than all the interest in people in the entertainment industry [actors and actresses] passing away.

  5. Thanks Google for always providing information and furthering my education. – On people and things I would never look up by myself.