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Today’s Google Doodle celebrates a Scottish chemist and his waterproof raincoat

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The story of Charles Macintosh and his smelly, rubberized fashion

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Charles Macintosh was born 250 years ago today.
Google

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the man whose invention keeps us dry all winter: Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), inventor of the waterproof raincoat — commonly known as a mackintosh.

Macintosh was a chemist born 250 years ago today in Glasgow, Scotland, where it rains, sleets, or snows an average of 201 days per year. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he figured out a way to rubberize clothes, making them impervious to wind and rain.

An illustration of a mackintosh in a 1893 department store catalog.
Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. catalogue, 1893 (Wikimedia Commons CC0)

Now, Macintosh wasn’t the first person to discover that liquid rubber is a great waterproofer: in South America, people had been painting their clothing with the liquid sap of rubber trees for centuries, according to Chemical & Engineering News. The problem was that sap didn’t travel well, so for rubber to get to Scotland, it had to cross the Atlantic in solid form — which isn’t very useful when you want a liquid to coat fabrics with.

But Macintosh used a gasoline-like liquid called naphtha to dissolve the solid rubber. (Naphtha’s produced as a byproduct when coal’s converted to gas.) Then he started creating garments by taking two pieces of fabric, painting one side of each with the dissolved rubber solution, and sticking them together — sandwiching the rubber in the middle. He patented the process in 1823. The garments were waterproof, but they stank and could get sticky in the heat, and stiff in the cold.

Still, soldiers and sailors didn’t seem to mind being stinky as long as it meant they were dry. For awhile, business was good enough that others tried to copy Macintosh’s idea, and he had to defend his patent in court, according to a biography written by his son.

In the years after Macintosh’s death, his son worried that increasing railway travel meant that people sheltered from the elements wouldn’t need raincoats. But more fashionable, and less smelly, iterations have stuck around, and in the nearly 200 years since its invention, the mackintosh has become a classic.

A portrait of Charles Macintosh.
Mezzotint by E. Burton (Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0)