Prof. Ashoka tells us how the raincoat was invented, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
Native American tribes in the Amazon basin have been using the sap from the rubber tree to make waterproof clothes for hundreds of years. The ancient Chinese used many materials for making waterproof rain capes, such as straw, sedge, and Chinese silver grass. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), elaborate oil coats were used. These were made of fabrics like ordinary silk but treated with yellow oil (Tung oil) to repel water.
French botanist François Fresneau used rubber for waterproofing fabric after seeing Native Americans in French Guiana doing the same. In 1763, he described how he had prepared waterproof cloth by dipping it in solutions of rubber with turpentine as a solvent. Scottish doctor John Syme conducted similar experiments in 1821.
The first raincoat, however, did not use a rubber. Made by G. Fox of London in 1821, it was called Fox’s Aquatic and used Gambroon, a type of linen cloth.
Early attempts at using rubber had been unsuccessful because the hardness of natural rubber varies with temperature. This made the clothes hard to wear. Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh found the solution in 1823. Macintosh’s process involved sandwiching a layer of molded rubber between two layers of fabric that had been brushed with rubber dissolved in naphtha. His first customer was the British military. In fact, raincoats are still called Mackintoshes or Macs in the UK.
In 1839, American Charles Goodyear developed vulcanised rubber, which is more elastic and easier to mold. English manufacturer Thomas Hancock used the vulcanised rubber to improve the Mackintosh raincoat in 1843. American companies introduced the calendaring process in 1849 in which Macintosh’s cloth was passed between heated rollers to make it more flexible and waterproof.
During World War I, English inventor Thomas Burberry created the all-weather trench coat. It was made of a type of cotton named gabardine that Burberry invented and was chemically processed to repel rain. These trench coats were originally made for soldiers but became popular with many civilians after 1918.
Oil-treated fabrics, usually cotton and silk, became popular in the 1920s. For example, oilskin was made by brushing linseed oil on fabric, which made the cloth repel water. Raincoats made of vinyl, nylon, and plastic became popular after World War II. Modern raincoats are made from a variety of high-tech materials like Gore-Tex and microfibre.
Serialised from the book, Popular Triumphs of Human Innovation in Everyday Life by Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Photos from the Internet
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