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The Roots of Raingear

The Roots of Raingear


by Ryan Jordan | 2001-11-06 03:00:00-07

Who invented the first rain parka? Perhaps pre-civilized man, with a saber-toothed tiger hide rubbed on the inside surface with mink oil. Not exactly ultralight, let alone convenient to pack. And then there is always the problem with getting the hide off the tiger...

This scenario certainly could have inspired the development of oiled cotton ("duck") cloth, which became popular for British hunting and military wear in the 17th century. Again, at 20-50 oz/sq. yd., oiled cotton is not going to find favor among ultralight aficionados.

Waterproofing Technology. I'd rather think that backpackers owe their gratitude for lightweight raingear to a Scottish man named Charles Macintosh, inventor of the famous Macintosh Raincoat of 1823. A chemist by trade, Macintosh dissolved India rubber in coal tar naptha and used the formulation to glue two pieces of wool together, effectively forming a waterproof garment. The Macintosh raincoat was not, per se, a shining example of technology application. However, the rubber-in-naptha glue most certainly was, and it was this formulation that inspired the development of similar solvent-based waterproofing treatments, including the polyurethane- and silicone-based formulations in use on the lightweight nylon garments of today.

Textile Engineering. Pre-WWII tensions between the U.S. and Japan resulted in a shortage of silk, so ex-Harvard-Chemist-turned-DuPont researcher Wallace Hume Carothers and his associates focused their efforts on developing an artificial fiber to replace it. In 1935, a new fiber was developed from this effort and patented by the DuPont Company. Carothers was rumored to be a severe manic-depressive and was traumatized even further by the death of his sister in 1937. Carothers' colleague, Julian Hill, observed him carrying a small bottle of a strange substance around the lab one day shortly thereafter. That bottle turned out to be cyanide, which Carothers consumed in April of 1937 in a successful attempt to commit suicide.

Well, two years later a synthetic fiber was introduced to the world and was described by Fortune Magazine in that year to be only the fourth major development in textile production in more than 4,000 years. The now-late-Carothers had invented what is well-known in textile history as The Miracle Fiber: Nylon.

So the next time you don a coated nylon jacket, tip your hat to Charles Macintosh and Wallace Carothers.


"The Roots of Raingear," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2001-11-06 03:00:00-07.