- R. B. Prosser
- , revised by Geoffrey V. Morson
Charles Macintosh (1766–1843)
Macintosh, Charles (1766–1843), manufacturing chemist and inventor of mackintosh waterproof fabrics, was born in Glasgow on 29 December 1766, the son of George Macintosh (d. 1807) of Glasgow, merchant, and his wife, Mary Moore (d. 1808). His maternal uncle was John Moore (1729–1802), the father of Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore (1761–1809). Macintosh was educated at a Glasgow grammar school and afterwards at a school in Catterick Bridge, Yorkshire. Although placed for training in a Glasgow counting house, his spare hours were devoted to science. Initially interested in botany, he subsequently turned to chemistry, and he often attended the lectures of William Irvine in Glasgow, and later those of Joseph Black in Edinburgh. He embarked upon a successful business career before he was twenty. In 1786 he introduced from the Netherlands the manufacture of sugar of lead—lead (II) acetate—and about the same time he commenced making acetate of alumina. In 1797 he started the first alum works in Scotland and subsequently became connected with the St Rollox bleaching powder works, near Glasgow. Seven years earlier, in 1790, he had married Mary (d. 1844), daughter of Alexander Fisher of Glasgow, merchant and the claimed distant descendant of certain kings of Scotland.
During a long business career Macintosh either invented or introduced from abroad a variety of chemically based processes with distinct commercial applications. In addition to the manufacture of sugar of lead these included a new method for calico printing, a variety of methods for dyeing cloth (particularly with Prussian blue), a valuable method of bleaching using dry chloride of lime, a method for preserving citric acid during ocean voyages, a manufacturing process for yeast, and a variety of inventions relating to iron and steel. However, it was about 1820, while experimenting with the by-products of coal gas, that he came upon or rediscovered the method of sealing a layer of rubber in between layers of cloth that still carries his name (quickly modified by the public to mackintosh). The waterproof fabric thus created, although subject to deterioration in extremes of cold or heat, was commercially successful for making garments, medical devices, nautical equipment, tents, and other products requiring flexibility and impermeability.
Macintosh was not the first to devise a way of using rubber to make fabrics waterproof but his chemical method (using cheap coal oil as a solvent) was well suited to large-scale, economical manufacturing and he and his business partners possessed considerable skill as well in devising and then promoting a very large variety of rubber goods which could be mass-produced using his method. It is likely that his method led to the first rubber products widely used by the general public for everyday purposes.
A patent for his waterproofing process was obtained by Macintosh in June 1823 and, based upon it, Macintosh, in partnership with Thomas Hancock, established and then expanded a successful manufacturing and marketing business in Glasgow and Manchester. Many practical difficulties had to be overcome, but the material soon came into wide use, and as early as April 1824 Macintosh was in correspondence with the ill-fated explorer Sir John Franklin on the subject of a supply of waterproof canvas bags, air-beds, and pillows for use on an Arctic expedition. The waterproof fabric trade of Macintosh & Co. fell off after the introduction of railways, when travellers were not as much exposed to the weather as in stagecoaches or on horseback, but the rest of the business continued to grow and prosper. Macintosh was tireless in his efforts to promote his business interests, carrying on an extensive commercial correspondence in English and French (in which he was fluent) and travelling numerous times to France, Germany, and Sardinia, as well as continuing to keep up to date with developments in chemistry; he attended lectures at the University of Glasgow until he was over fifty.
In 1836 Macintosh's waterproofing patent was infringed by a London firm of silk mercers called Everington & Son, leading to a trial, celebrated in its day, in which the patent was enthusiastically vindicated by the jury (even before the lord chief justice had completed his summing up for them) and the inventor's name then passed almost immediately into the English language, having first been used generically, it seems, in a private letter written in 1836 by the painter William Powell Frith, of Derby Day fame, and at least as early as 1840 in America by the poet Longfellow.
In 1825 Macintosh had obtained a patent for converting malleable iron into steel, by exposing it at a white heat to the action of gases charged with carbon, such as coal gas. Macintosh took great interest in the manufacture of iron and he rendered considerable practical assistance to James Beaumont Neilson in 1828 in bringing the latter's ‘hot-blast’ process into use. Neilson assigned to him a share in the patent and Macintosh thus became a party to the ensuing litigation (concerning the levy of a licence fee from users of the process), which was only brought to a close in May 1843, a few months before his death.
Macintosh's connection with the commercial applications of rubber has somewhat obscured his contemporary fame as an innovative chemist. His discoveries in that branch of science led to his election in 1824 as a fellow of the Royal Society. He died at Dunchattan, near Glasgow, from an intestinal malady, on 25 July 1843. Macintosh was survived by two of his three children, one of whom, George, wrote a detailed memoir of his father's life and business career.
- G. Macintosh, Biographical memoir of the late Charles Macintosh of Campsie and Dunchattan (1847)
- T. Hancock, Personal narrative of the origin and progress of the caoutchouc or India-rubber manufacture in England (1857)
- H. Schurer, ‘The macintosh: the paternity of an invention’, Transactions [Newcomen Society], 28 (1951–3), 77–87
- N. Clow and A. Clow, ‘George Macintosh, 1739–1807, and Charles Macintosh, 1766–1842 [sic]’, Chemistry and Industry (13 March 1943), 104–6
- W. Woodruff, The rise of the British rubber industry during the nineteenth century (1958), 2–6, 225–6
- Abstracts of the Papers Communicated to the Royal Society of London, 5 (1843–50), 486–8
- ‘Report of case of Macintosh v. Everington’, Mechanics' Magazine, 24 (1836)
- L. Day and I. McNeil, eds., Biographical dictionary of the history of technology (1996)
- S. S. Pickles, ‘Production and utilization of rubber’, A history of technology, ed. C. Singer and others, 5: The late nineteenth century, c. 1850 to c. 1900 (1958), 752–75
- G. Babcock, History of the United States Rubber Company (1966), 6–8, 13–14
- Chambers, Scots., rev. T. Thomson (1875)
- J. Fisher, The Glasgow encyclopedia (1994), 275
- ‘Mackintosh’, The Oxford English dictionary, ed. J. A. H. Murray and others, 12 vols. (1933)
- ‘Mackintosh’, The Oxford English dictionary, ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, 2nd edn, 20 vols. (1989)
- Mitchell L., Glas., Strathclyde regional archives, Macintosh company archives
- R. C. Bell, steel engraving (in old age; after J. Graham Gilbert), repro. in Macintosh, Biographical memoir of the late Charles Macintosh of Campsie and Dunchattan
- E. Burton, mezzotint (after J. G. Gilbert), BM
- engraving, NPG [see illus.]