Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

29 December 2016

This "Mac" Is Almost 200 Years Old. Would We Have Gore-Tex Without It?

If someone were to ask you which countries contributed the most to the development of the bicycle, which would you name?

I'd bet that most of you would name one or more of the following:
  • England
  • France
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • United States.
Any or all would be valid choices.  A case could also be made for Germany:  like the US, it played significant roles in the early history as well as the current development of the bicycle, although there was a "gap" of a few decades.

One country that played an inordinately large role in the early development of the bicycle is Scotland.  Now, some of you may argue that it's part of the UK and therefore the Scots are British.  But, as much as I love the English and things English (Hey, I teach their literature!), I see the Scots as an independent people who have had a history and culture distinct from their neighbors.  If I don't understand that, well, I've had no business teaching Macbeth.

The single most important technological development in the history of cycling--indeed, one of the most important technological developments in history, period--came from the hands of a Scottish veterinary surgeon who practiced in Northern Ireland. 

There is still a company that bears his name.  These days, it's best known for tennis equipment and tires for motorcycles, cars and trucks.

And, yes, it made bicycle tires until the 1960s.  In fact, their clinchers were regarded as the best available and were original equipment on many quality bikes, including Raleighs.  Owners of Raleigh three-speed got very, very creative in extending the life of their tires because they couldn't be replaced with anything that wore as well.  Likewise, owners of Raleigh sport bikes like the Lenton did whatever they could to keep their original Dunlop tires rolling, because the only way to match, or exceed, their performance was to use tubular ("sew-up") tires.  Dunlop also made a steel rim, the lightest of its time, to use with the tire.

John Boyd Dunlop's invention--the pneumatic, or air-filled, tire-- essentially completed the modern bicycle which, arguably, was created by John Kemp Starley a couple of years earlier when he created a machine with two equal-sized wheels driven by sprockets and a chain.  Starley's bike was, essentially, the final major stage in the evolution of the pedal driven bicycle, which was invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan, another Scotsman. (With a name like that, what else could he be?)

As I said in an earlier post, it's difficult to overstate the importance of the pneumatic tire.  Without it, bicycles would still be slower and less versatile than horses.  So would motorcycles, automobiles and trucks.  And modern aircraft could not take off or land.

Even if no other Scotsman invented anything to improve the bicycle, or the bicycling experience, I think Scotland could lay claim to being one of the most important countries in the development of cycling.  However, I am going to mention another Scotsman who created something that, like pedals and pneumatic tires, made it possible to ride a bicycle under a greater range of conditions.  Some might even argue that his invention made Dunlop's work possible.

One way in which the invention I'm about to mention is different from pedaled bicycles or pneumatic tires is that it wasn't developed specifically for bicycles.  In fact, he probably never rode anything we would describe as a bicycle.  For that matter, he might not have ever seen one.

You are all familiar with his name and the invention that bears it, even though most of you probably have never owned one--or, at least not a "real" one.  There is only one factory in the whole world that makes the "authentic" version.  Still, it has influenced many, many other products in its genre--and items far beyond the scope of said genre.

As I mentioned, it helped to make, if indirectly, Dunlop's tire possible.  And what did that tire--and just about every tire made since--consist of?  Rubber and fabric.  Remember, the original Dunlop tire didn't have a bead:  It was rather like a modern sew-up (tubular) tire.


So what else is made from rubber and cloth?  A certain raincoat:  the Mackintosh.  Its inventor, Charles Macintosh, was born 250 years ago today.


Charles Macintosh was a self-taught Scottish chemist who originally worked on new ways of making dyes.  He succeeded at that, but neither that nor anything else he did would immortalize him in the way his coat--and, most important, the fabric he created for it--would.

He found a way to sandwich a layer of liquid rubber between two layers of cloth.  The key was in mixing naphtha into the rubber compound, which gave it enough liquid viscosity to spread between the layers of cloth but allowed the rubber to remain supple when it dried. 

Mackintosh coats became an instant success:  Everyone from police officers and firefighters to Arctic explorers wore them.  As a result, they became very fashionable and were, perhaps, one of the first unisex pieces of outerwear.

An early Mackintosh:  The Granddaddy of Gore Tex?


But the most important result of Macintosh's work is that he created what was, in essence, the world's first waterproof fabric.  Other attempts had been made to create waterproof jackets and coats:  They either were too stiff to wear or were, well, not exactly waterproof.  The main drawbacks to early Mackintoshes were their stiffness (though they were still more supple than other raingear), smell and tendency to melt in hot weather. All of these problems were solved by Macintosh and later chemists--and with the vulcanization of rubber.

If you have a Gore Tex jacket, the way it was made was, really, not so different from how Mackintoshes have been made for nearly two centuries.  The Gore Tex membrane is bonded between layers of fabric. And, just as the original Mackintosh (made in a factory in Manchester, England) is taped at the seams, so is any Gore Tex garment that can claim to be waterproof.  Of course, Gore Tex overcomes the other drawback of the Mackintosh, or any other rubberized garment:  Its lack of breathability.

So, I think it's safe to say that the "Mack" did as much to make cycling an activity that can be done in adverse weather conditions as another "Mac" did--at least in the eyes of its fans--to make personal computing easier and more versatile.



(N.B.:  I have composed this, and everything else on this blog and my other, on PCs, mainly out of habit.)
 

2 comments:

  1. love it. really enjoyed coming across that animation earlier today but your post is very pleasant.
    always learning from you justine <3 cheers

    ReplyDelete
  2. Meli--It's great to see you again. Thank you, and happy new year!

    ReplyDelete