fueled by resistance

Today’s weather-resistant materials are stronger, lighter and better than ever — and it’s all fueled by petroleum.

Today’s weather-resistant materials are stronger, lighter and better than ever — and it’s all fueled by petroleum.

Humanity survives the conditions the world puts forth by staying warm, dry and out of the sun. To accomplish this, we’ve proven pretty resourceful along the way. At first, we utilized the materials we scavenged and animals we hunted to create crude weather-resistant wares and shelters — sticks, mud, hides — that were just as modest as they were necessary. The idea of waterproofing clothes dates back to the pre-Columbian era, when Aztecs wove fabric with latex derived from rubber trees. As we evolved, so did our ambition to invent ways that allowed us to defy nature and deter the elements.

Umbrellas and parasols are rooted in global history and culture, with the most ancient reference of a collapsible umbrella on record dating all the way back to 21 A.D. when the emperor of the Xin Dynasty had one designed for a ceremonial four-wheeled carriage. This umbrella — and all early renditions found throughout ancient Rome, India, Greece and the Middle East — was designed to provide relief from the sun rather than rain. In the 17th century, the Italians, French and English started making the first rain umbrellas from silk, and only women carried them. They weren’t popularized for men until 1750 when an Englishman named Jonas Hanway started to carry a rain umbrella of his own design through the streets of London. Modern-day umbrellas are made from petroleum-based nylon and coated in polytetrafluoroethylene, the same stuff used to make nonstick frying pans.

In 1823, things changed forever. A rather industrious Scotsman named Charles Macintosh had been experimenting with a gooey synthetic substance called naphtha, which is made fromnatural gas condensates and petroleum distillates. He coated a large swath of natural rubber with naphtha and sandwiched it between two pieces of cloth, effectually waterproofing the inner layer. The raincoat was born. “The Mac,” as it’s called in the United Kingdom, has been a staple of British fashion for more than 190 years. In 1852, shoemaker Hiram Hutchinson met Charles Goodyear, who had just invented the process for making industrial rubber. Goodyear would go on to make tires, but Hutchinson bought the patent to use rubber to manufacture footwear. The PVC rain boot was born shortly thereafter. Petroleum didn’t just change the way we repelled water but how we spent time in it.

We’re better at staying dry, warm and out of the sun than at any point in history. It’s easy to take for granted, but this is all relatively new to the human condition. The ways in which modern ingenuity is woven into our bathing suits, boots, umbrellas, tents, coolers and jackets is astounding. We’re experts in making lightweight waterproof materials, forming highly durable gear that can withstand intense winds, rain and snow. Sure, some of it is actually fashionable. But more important, it’s functional. These uses of weather-resistant petroleum products keep our cellphones and watches dry and alive; we spray it on our windshield to repel the rain; and we find it in the lenses of the sunglasses that polarize the rays and protect our eyes.

When you start to get scientific about it, looking deep into the history and technology behind some of today’s water-repelling gear, we see that today’s lightest, strongest and most-resistant materials are manufactured out of the same stuff we use to fill up our cars, boats, motorcycles and planes. Petroleum is in there, and it’s keeping us drier than ever.