The secret of the first raincoat was in a waste product from the coal mines

Charles Macintosh (Glasgow, December 29, 1766 – Dennistoun, Glasgow, July 25, 1843)

Those who are somewhat familiar with the climate of Scotland should not be surprised that the modern raincoat is a Scottish invention. The inventor Charles Macintosh was born in Glasgow; even today a raincoat is still called in English 'a mackintosh' (with k) or abbreviated also 'a mac'.

Charles grew up in his father's dye factory, which, towards the end of the eighteenth century, made a fortune with the purple-red dye orseille. It was extracted from certain lichens from the Scottish highlands, supplemented with ammonia.

The Macintoshes purified that ammonia from human urine.

A city like Glasgow had no toilets in those years. Fortunately, the Macintosh factory workers were there to collect the urine. More than ten thousand liters per day. The orseille came in brilliant hues ranging from pink and red to purple and blue.

At one point he sold the dye halfway around the world. To keep the composition strictly secret, Father Macintosh built three-metre high walls around his factory and only employed Gaelic-speaking Scots from the Highlands.

Until the orseille market collapsed. Not because of a shortage of moss or urine, just because the fashion image changed. From then on, black set the tone: black hats, black suits and black dresses, the shoes became black and so did the stockings. The orseille factory fell behind.

The young Charles first devoted himself to the development of lead white, a basic element of dye, which he also sold in the Netherlands and Belgium. Then onto a fabric bleaching powder, which also did very well.

The bleaching powder was such an immense success that Charles Macintosh could claim in those days that he owned the largest chemical plant in the world. The powder would be used for over a hundred years.

He had to close a yeast factory that he set up in 1809 after a short time because of the opposition of London beer brewers.

Earlier he had already set up Britain's first factory of alum - a double salt with countless applications even today - with a waste product from the coal mines.

Waste products intrigued him, also because they were free and the mine owners almost gave him money to take them with him. He used naphtha, one of those products, to manufacture fire beacons, for example.

On the instructions of a student, he tried to make raw lumps of Indian rubber flexible and malleable with that naphtha. And behold, it worked.

When he pressed the smooth rubber between two pieces of cloth, he obtained a material that could protect against the eternal Scottish rain. On June 17, 1823, he patented his invention.

The text of this said that with the malleable rubber the fabric of hemp, flax, wool, cotton, but also leather, paper and other substances could be made impermeable to water and air.

The tailors didn't like it and Macintosh was forced to set up its own factory to produce the fabric on a large scale.

Finding no partners in Scotland, he made his way to Manchester where in 1824 he teamed up with the enterprising brothers Birley and the businessman Thomas Hancock to found Charles Macintosh & Co for the production of raincoats.

Hugh Birley is well known in British social history for his responsibility in the Peterloo Massacre, the bloody suppression of a rally for more voting rights.

For a long time Macintosh's coats remained a problem: the cold made them rock hard and they almost melted under great heat; in any case they smelled horribly. And you couldn't call them elegant in cut.

Some thought they resembled a potato sack, others spoke of a poorly cut farmer's smock.

On ships, the weird coats could do a good service. The explorer Sir John Franklin took them to the North Pole in 1824. And none other than the great physicist Michael Faraday gave one of his wildly popular lectures on the new coat in London.

Macintosh could not wish for better advertising.

Macintosh, now a member of the Royal Society, continued to experiment in his laboratory on the huge estate of Dunchattan near Glasgow into old age. In 1828, for example, he was able to patent a new type of blast furnace to produce finer steel.

He did not live to see how his partner Hancock neck and neck with the American Goodyear in November 1843 'vulcanized' the rubber with the help of sulphur, liquefying it. From then on, the raincoats were no longer subject to temperature fluctuations.

And they lost their bad smell.

The immensely wealthy Macintosh died in July 1843, aged 77, in Dennistoun, Glasgow, where his headstone against the north side of the cathedral can still be seen.

He would certainly have been surprised that his company still exists after more than 180 years and that the raincoat still bears his name in English.

He did know that a cousin of his had married a Frenchman from the Mont-Ferrand area around 1830. And that she had taught those French people how to make rubber balls.

The French Michelin family would be eternally grateful to the Scottish Macintosh family for this special wedding gift.

Until the year 2000, Mackintosh produced at the site in Manchester where the first factories were founded in 1824. Since 2000, Mackintosh Ltd has been back home in Scotland, in Cumbernauld, a new town founded in 1956 to accommodate Glasgow's population growth.

The classic Mackintosh raincoats are still rubberized and handmade. On the spot.

The new owners have transformed the brand into a chic, colorful fashion brand, with workshops that also produce rain-resistant outfits for Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Hermès, Yamamoto, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent.

(See also: pneumatic tire, electric motor)