Blantyre’s other Famous Son

Not many people realise this, but Blantyre had another famous son, other than David Livingstone. Mr Charles McIntosh. Not the Renee McIntosh, but Charles MacIntosh, inventor of the waterproof mac. He was certainly in the right profession, if Blantyre’s weather had a say in the matter. If Charles Macintosh were to have had a family motto, it might have been: “Thank Heaven it never just rains but it pours.” The mill-owner and inventor was responsible for introducing the world to the mackintosh raincoat (better known as a “mac”) and wellington boots after discovering and refining a process to waterproof cloth using India Rubber. He is also credited with introducing India Rubber’s properties to a wide audience in Britain which later went on to be developed for use in endless items.

Where Did Macintosh Come From?

Macintosh (1766-1843), born in Glasgow, was the son of a successful dyer, and developed an early fascination with science, especially chemistry. His father had a factory in Dennistoun, manufacturing a material called “cudbear”, used in making a violet-red dying powder

When Macintosh was 20-years-old he worked in his father’s chemical factory and, 11 years later, went on to open the first alum works in Hurlet, Renfrewshire which used waste shale from oil shale mines. He also went into partnership with Charles Tennant, who had invented a vastly improved process of bleaching using liquid, as well as a solid bleaching powder, at a chemical works at St Rollox, near Glasgow.

Succeeding Where Other Failed

Macintosh was not the first person to try to waterproof material using rubber. James Syme and Thomas Hancock had, independently of each other, both tried to develop a commercial use from their researches but had not managed to do so. Syme, another Scot, had discovered that applying India-Rubber dissolved in coal-tar onto fabric would make it waterproof.  However, he didn’t patent the process, leaving the way open for Macintosh to leap in. At the time, Macintosh was trying to find uses for waste products generated by the gasworks, established in Glasgow in 1817, and he invested in developing a number of other chemical processes. Many of these used the ammonia and tar by-products of the gasworks as raw materials.

Macintosh experimented with naptha, a by-product of the coal-tar distillation process, using it as a solvent for rubber. This solution enabled him to fix a layer of rubber between two layers of cloth, making the cloth waterproof. Macintosh patented the invention in 1823 and in that same year was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The Mackintosh Is Born

In 1824 he formed a partnership with the Manchester industrialist, Hugh Hornby Birley, who was a director of the Manchester Gas Works and a cotton spinner and weaver. The waterproof material produced in the factory was marketed under the brand name “Mackintosh”, with the extra letter “k”.

Within just one year, business was booming. Macintosh had not only set up a factory in Manchester but had also gone on to secure a huge contract to supply the British military with rainproof cloth. He also supplied the Franklin Arctic expedition (1823), and a grateful public as well. His success continued to grow unabated as more and more uses were found for his waterproof cloth. Thomas Hancock, meanwhile, had invented a machine to work raw rubber and in 1826 was contracted to work with Charles Mackintosh and Company manufacturing waterproof garments in Manchester.

Finding the Perfect Materials

However, in the early years, problems developed during the manufacturing process. Tailors punctured the fabric while in the process of seaming them, allowing rain to penetrate. The natural oil in woollen cloth made the rubber deteriorate, and the garments became stiff in winter and humid in hot weather. Sometimes they melted in the sun! Hancock made some improvements and over the years sales continued to soar. And grow they did. By the 1830’s Mr MacIntosh had accumulated a small fortune and was able to buy the grand house at Crossbasket, Blantyre.

An advertisement in Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of Saturday 25 July 1829 stated (1): “Sheppard and Gains, having been appointed agents for Devon and Cornwall, respectfully announce to the Nobility, Gentry and the Public, that they have just received a large consignment of these goods, direct from the Patentees, which are quite ready for inspection.  Cloth, plaid cloths of various colours, wellingtons, cloaks and capes, travelling bags of Brussels carpeting, bathing caps, washing aprons, air cushions and air beds…”

The advertisement also carried a testimonial from Captain William Parry’s narrative of an attempt to reach the North Pole in 1825:  “We narrowly escaped the loss of a bag of cocoa which fell overboard; the bag being made of Mackintosh’s Water-Proof Canvas, the cocoa did not suffer the slightest injury. I know of no material which, with an equal weight, is equally durable and water-tight; in the latter quality it is indeed perfect.”

India Rubber Hits Our Shores

India Rubber was not known in Europe until about the beginning of the 1700s. Due to its increasing prominence in the manufacturing industry, Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette  of 3 July 1830 (2), reported: “It is now becoming of importance in the commercial world. Nothing accurate was known of its origin for a long time. Philosophers generally supposed it to be an artificial production, until in the year 1753, the academy of sciences in Paris sent a company of gentlemen to South America for the purpose of measuring a degree of the meridian; in the following year one of them (Mons. Condamine) presented a memoir to the academy in which he stated that Caoutchouc, or India Rubber, is procured from a tree growing in the Province of Esmeraldas, in Brazil.  …It has lately been brought to more general notice and utility in this country by Charles Macintosh, of Manchester, who has obtained a patent for the exercise of its impervious and elastic qualities, in the use of their water-tight and air-tight fabrics.”

A seemingly unlimited number of uses for Macintosh’s materials were found. The Kendal Mercury and Westmorland Advertiser of 12 July 1834 (3) reported: “200 tons of India Rubber was imported during the present year, with the introduction of a new toy called India Rubber balls and India Rubber waterproof apparel accounting for the augmented demand.”

Buoyed by his success, Macintosh sought to extend his sole rights for using and selling his waterproof and air-tight cloth. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of 9 January 1836 (4) reported: “Charles Macintosh, of CrossBasket, near Glasgow, hereby gives notice that he intends forthwith to apply to His Majesty in council for the prolongation of a further term of seven years, or such term not exceeding seven years as His Majesty shall please; of his repetitive terms of sole using and vending his invention of a “process and manufacture whereby the texture of hemp, flax, wool, cotton and silk, and also leather, paper and other substances may be rendered impervious to water and air…”

Just eight years later, entirely new uses found for India Rubber were making front page news. The Hereford Times of  21 December 1844 (5) noted: “About three years ago its chief and almost only use was in the manufacture for Macintosh’s waterproof cloth, the fabrication of some surgical apparatus in which elasticity and pliability were the object desired, and the rubbing out of black-lead pencil marks from paper, and a few other minute and unimportant applications.
Now, however, this substance is employed in some highly important branches of our manufacturers, and has became a valuable agent in the arts and sciences – showing what an extensive field the rapid advance of science may open up for the appliance of materials hitherto considered as next to useless.  …Few may know, or might expect, that India Rubber may be employed as a pavement for stables, lobbies, public halls and the like; that it is now being used in the construction of lifeboats, and that it is also proposed to use it extensively for the fitting up of our men-at-war. The Elastic Pavement Company has lately erected machinery for the preparation of the material for these important purposes and can produce it at a price sufficiently moderate to admit of its general adoption.”

Macintosh’s Legacy Lives On…

There was no radical change to the water-proofing method until the invention of vulcanised rubber, which revolutionised the industry, because it resisted temperature changes. Thomas Hancock was given a patent in 1844 but was challenged in court three times by fellow pioneer Stephen Moulton. The matter was settled in 1855, with Hancock winning. Sadly, Macintosh did not live to see this achievement, having passed away in 1843 (6), with the newspapers recording “the death of Charles Macintosh of Campsie and Dunchattan, inventor of the waterproof cloth that bears his name.” He is buried in the churchyard of Glasgow Cathedral.

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