Today, waterproofing as a field encompasses many fascinating areas of research. A variety of popular waterproof fabrics testify to the far-flung nature of many breakthroughs: latex fabrics, vinyl, fluoropolymer fabrics and Gore-Tex.
Many people do not realize efforts to produce cloth with water-resistant properties actually formed an important area of research for hundreds (and possibly thousands) of years! Early people struggled to create clothing items which would keep them dry and protected from the effects of soaking rains. The story underlying the creation of wearable waterproof materials proves quite intriguing. It demonstrates how numerous independent and seemingly unrelated discoveries may eventually contribute important elements to commercially useful products.
Innovators in South America
The research leading to the early mass-production of waterproof textiles likely owed a lot to innovations undertaken by aboriginal residents of the Amazon River basin centuries ago. Some reports indicate that as early as the 1200s, some communities in that part of the world likely learned to manufacture rain-resistant canopies and capes by coating materials with a covering of natural latex, the raw-material used for rubber production. The names of the individuals responsible for this innovation remain lost to recorded history. However, the idea likely helped inspire scientists in later centuries. Early latex-coated products remained too sticky in hot weather to wear comfortably in hot climates, and the latex degraded rapidly in milder temperatures.
A Breakthrough Raincoat
For example, just as people in the modern era marvel at the development of new water resistant nanotechnology-assisted formulations, the public in the British Isle during the 1800s considered the development of rubberized cloth a significant improvement in rainwear. A Scottish chemist named Charles Macintosh (1766-1843) worked to develop waterproof fabrics. In 1823, he discovered that cloth reinforced with an interior rubberized lining offered greater protection from the rain. His research became the basis for the development of new, more water-resistant raincoats.
Mass Production of Rubber
The transport of latex-producing trees from the Amazon to England, and from England to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia contributed to the development of the early global rubber industry, too. As scientists discovered an increasing number of new uses for latex, agribusiness owners found they could cultivate groves of latex-producing trees in some tropical locations to produce larger yields. A species of latex trees imported from Brazil contributed significantly to the expansion of organized latex production efforts in Southeast Asia. Ultimately, contributions of botanists seeking to develop more productive latex groves likely facilitated the development of modern waterproof fabrics.
Another significant rubber-related discovery in 1839 would eventually unintentionally impact efforts to design more waterproof fabrics. The American scientist Charles Goodyear helped move this process forward through his effort to conduct basic research into creating temperature-resistant rubber products. In hot weather, natural rubber becomes gummy. It crack in cold temperatures. After five years of research, Charles Goodyear discovered he could stabilize rubber through the addition of sulfur, a process he described as producing “vulcanized rubber”. Sadly, the inventor’s efforts to exploit his discovery commercially did not bear fruit during his lifetime. He died in poverty in 1860, some 40 years before his invention revolutionized the automobile tire industry. Vulcanized rubber would also ultimately contribute to more waterproof fabrics and spur interest in developing new, synthetic forms of rubber.
The history of the development of waterproof fabrics indicates the importance of numerous individual, seemingly unrelated discoveries. Today, exciting new discoveries continue to raise interest in the waterproofing field!