I grew up in Los Angeles and lived there until the age of 23. In all that time, I don’t recall ever owning an umbrella. I probably did, but I just don’t recall it because Los Angeles, like the rest of Southern California, has very little (too little) rainfall.
I then moved to Mwanza, Tanzania, on the southern shore of Lake Victoria. There I also never owned an umbrella because the weather was even better than in Los Angeles. Year-round, the sky was always a brilliant blue, with never a grey day in sight. During the short monsoon (rainy) season, you would occasionally see a small white cloud peak its head above the horizon. At that moment you would set your watch because you knew that about two hours later it would be pouring down in buckets, then after another couple of hours, the sky would once again be cloudless and brilliantly blue.
I now live in Brussels, Belgium. This little kingdom bordering on the North Sea bears a reputation of being very rainy. When a friend of mine who used to live here returned to the U.S., he would occasionally call. The first words out of his mouth were always, “Is it raining in Belgium? And If not, why not?” This is very much stretching the truth. Nevertheless, living in Belgium without an umbrella would be entirely unthinkable.
The humble umbrella is one of mankind’s oldest complex inventions. “Complex” means it is more than just a sharpened stone or sharpened stick. It is actually constructed, fundamentally consisting of a smooth shaft (shank) attached to a kind of canopy.
The umbrella is also interesting because its fundamental structure serves diametrically opposite functions. As an umbrella, it protects against the rain. As a parasol (which has the same basic construction), it protects against the sun. Historically, the umbrella/parasol has played important roles in religion, social stratification, cultural symbolism, etc.
For these and other reasons, I believe the umbrella/parasol) justifiably deserves a place of honor on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”
History of the Umbrella
If you speak Italian, you may have noticed something odd about the origin of the word umbrella. It is in fact derived from ombrella, the diminutive of the Italian word ombra. In turn, ombrais derived from umbra, which is Latin for “shade.” That’s right. If you pick it apart, the word umbrella strongly suggests that it is an instrument to protect the user from the sun, rather than the rain.
There is a hint of this idea in English in the terms “penumbra,” “umbra,” and “antumbra.” Although true of any shadow caused by a light source being blocked by an object, these words are most often heard, particularly penumbra, in relation to a lunar or solar eclipse. In a partial eclipse, the lighter part of the shadow is the penumbra, the darker part is the umbra, and the lighter part of the shadow that begins where the umbra ends is the antumbra.
Other languages, such as French and German, are much more open about their terminology. In French, an umbrella is called a parapluie (para = protect, pluie = rain), while a parasol is called that for the very good reason that para = protect and sol = sun. In German, an umbrella is called a regenschirm (regen = rain, schirm = screen), while a parasol is called a sonnenschirm (sonnen = sun, schirm = screen).
Short History of the Umbrella
It is hard to imagine that prehistoric people didn’t use something to protect themselves from heavy rain or searing sunlight. However, there seems to be no record of anything that looks like an umbrella in cave paintings and other prehistoric artifacts.
The forerunner of the umbrella we know today dates back at least 4,000 years ago, with evidence of such a device appearing in the ancient art and artifacts of Assyria, China, Egypt, and Greece. However, all of these records show the device being used as a shield against the sun, not rain.
Because use of the umbrella was a sign of royalty, nobility, great wealth, such people seldom went out into the rain and when they went out into the sun they would be shaded by a servant or slave holding an umbrella device over their heads. In some of these societies, pale skin was a sign of social superiority, so avoiding suntan and sunburn was a cultural necessity.
Invention of the rain-protecting umbrella came about in in China in some 3,000 years ago in the 11th century BCE with the first leather-covered umbrellas. Being extremely expensive to produce, they were used almost exclusively by royalty, the nobility, and the extremely wealthy. In the meantime, expanding trade between with China brought the concept of the sun-protecting umbrella to Europe almost 2,000 years later starting roughly around 1100 CE. However, they suffered from a cultural drawback. In Greece and Roman, where they first took hold, umbrellas were used almost exclusively by wealthy woman. Given the sharp gender distinctions of the time, male European looked down on umbrellas as being “feminine” and therefore not to be used by men, who preferred to continue braving sun and rain with hats and coats.
The fall of the Roman Empire brought to an end the tradition of carrying umbrellas by wealthy ladies. In the wake of Rome’s fall, the crumbling economy, perpetual wars, poor personal hygiene, stalling of technological advancements, etc. led to a thousand years of near total absence of parasols and umbrellas in Europe. It was only after the start of the Renaissance in England, France, and Italy (6th century) that the delicate and expensive feminine parasols came back into fashion. In large part, this was probably due to the influence of stories and paintings being brought back to Europe via recently instituted land trade routes to Asia.
The idea of the umbrella (parasol) being exclusively a feminine accessory persisted for nearly another 200 years. This began to change only in the middle of 18th century thanks to Englishman Jonas Hanway who, despite its multi-millennia history, is often referred to as “the inventor of the umbrella.”
Jonas Hanway (1712–1786), a respected English philanthropist, was the first man of note to defy ridicule and reproach by openly carrying an umbrella in London. His first audacious venture at carrying an umbrella in public is believed to have taken place around 1750. By the time of his death in 1786, the sight of a man carrying an umbrella had become a fairly common sight. Today, the stereotypic picture of an Englishman shows a conservatively dressed man wearing a bowler hat and carrying his trusty black “brolly” (umbrella). Social acceptability of the male umbrella quickly spread to much of continental Europe.
Once it had been liberated from its gender stereotyping, inventors and manufacturers began around the world turned their attention to improving the umbrella’s design and performance. For example, in China paper umbrellas were made significantly more weatherproof by coating the paper canopy with wax and lacquer. Umbrellas were also redesigned to make them lighter, more compact (telescoping steel shafts), and above all cheaper to appeal to everyone. .
Plethora of Umbrella Types
There are numerous ways of classifying the plethora of umbrella types. But as we have seen, the term umbrella itself is contradictory because it is derived from words that mean “shadow” or “shade,” which is exactly the opposite of what most people think it means. Moreover, certain types of umbrellas can indifferently be used to protect the user from both rain and sunshine.
The following classification, which includes 11 categories, assumes the umbrella can be used for both purposes except where only one of the two purposes is specified and/or possible. In all cases, the umbrella will consist of three basic components: 1. shaft, 2. canopy structure, 3. canopy covering.
1. Straight umbrella
This type of umbrella represents the very definition of an umbrella. That is, it consists of the three basic components (shaft, frame, covering) and nothing else. Being the simplest type of umbrella, it is often the cheapest. Because of its long, rigid shaft, in addition to protecting against sunshine and rain, it can also be used as a walking stick.
2. Foldable umbrella
These umbrellas have the same basic structure as the straight umbrella, the difference being the shaft can be folded to make it more compact and easy to carry about. They are sub-classified according to the number of subunits when folded, i.e. two-fold, three-fold, four-fold, and five-fold. Commercially, the most popular style is the 3-fold umbrella. The shortest is the five-fold model. Being significantly shorter than the basic straight version, folded umbrellas conveniently fit into handbags, backpacks, and glove compartments.
These are even smaller than folded umbrellas because they canopy is smaller. In folded umbrellas, the canopy is often large to protect two persons if needs be. With a mini-umbrella, the canopy is generally large enough to protect only the user themselves, excluding a second person.
4. Automatic-opening umbrella
An umbrella can be opened and closed in one of three ways: 1. manual open/close, 2. automatic open/manual close, and 3. automatic open/closed.
Traditionalists tend to prefer manual/close. Most people prefer the convenience of being able to open the umbrella at the touch of a button, and being able to both open and close at the touch of a button.
5. Windproof/storm umbrella
These models are specifically designed to withstand (within limits) severe weather such as drenching downpours, hurricanes, and typhoons.
Made with extremely durable materials, they can handle wind speeds of around 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour. The most rugged models will have a double layer of protective covering to help prevent the canopy from being blown apart.
6. Golf umbrella
Especially for golfers, this umbrella is especially designed to protect players from intense heat or rain while on the links. Because it needs to protect both the golfer, and their cart or sports equipment, the canopy is exceptionally large, usually exceeding 136 centimeters (62 inches). Despite their super size, such umbrellas fit well in a golf bag.
7. Bubble umbrella
The bubble umbrella has an exceptionally large, colorless see-through canopy that curves sharply down to surround the user’s head and shoulders. It is especially useful in heavy downpours allowing users to still easily see where they are going despite the heavy rain. Although excellent for countering the deleterious effects of rain, being transparent it has no use for countering the effects of sunshine, i.e. it is not a parasol.
In reality, the bubble umbrella may be considered a subclass of a broader class of umbrellas, the “clear umbrella.” A clear umbrella is any umbrella whose canopy is see-through, i.e. neither opaque nor colored. Certain people simply prefer umbrellas that do not partially obscure their view of their surroundings. Like the bubble umbrella, the transparent umbrella cannot be used for countering the effects of sunshine, i.e. it has no claim to be called a parasol.
8. Children’s umbrellas
It is no secret that children love bright colors and cartoons characters. The message is not lost on umbrella designers and retailers, which is why umbrellas for children come in bright colors and often feature characters. They also design and market children’s umbrellas for different seasons to help ensure that they will be used no matter the time of the year.
Children’s umbrellas are generally lightweight with a short shaft for easy carrying and storage. They also include safety features such as safety ribs and tips to prevent injuries.
9. Beach umbrella
When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, whenever possible I was at the beach. I was almost always in the water. What happened on the sand was of very little interest to me, so I never used a beach umbrella. For most people it is the other way around. The spend most of their time on the sand and very little time in the water, a beach umbrella to shield you from the sun is necessary equipment for having a good day out.
A beach umbrella basically consists of a long, sturdy handle plus a large, relatively flat canopy to shade the body while you are lying in the sand. Moreover, a beach umbrella needs to be durable, windproof, and with a canopy covering specifically designed to minimize UV rays (the ones that burn the skin) from reaching the person or people sheltering underneath.
Since it is virtually never used to protect against rain and virtually always used to protect against the sun, by all logic a beach umbrella should be called a beach parasol. But it isn’t, so we just have to live with it.
10. Gender-specific umbrellas
In 2020 it may seem somewhat sexist to approach this subject. Nevertheless, manufacturers and retailers unabashedly offer distinct lines of umbrellas for men and women because the market seems to demand it.
One web site I consulted for this blog said, “Men can use any umbrella they want, but they also deserve a section of umbrellas dedicated to them.” I think they got it wrong. I generally use what would be considered a man’s umbrella; however, on occasion I use what would be considered a lady’s umbrella. On such occasions, I almost always get quizzical looks, and occasionally comments. I doubt when a woman uses what might generally be considered a man’s umbrella she faces such scrutiny.
Men’s umbrellas are designed to reflect the popular bold and sophisticated image of a gentleman. Not surprisingly, the most popular color for a man’s umbrella is black.
While the website I consulted happily talked about umbrellas for men, rather than gentlemen, it was quite careful to talk about umbrellas for ladies, rather than women, probably for assumed reasons of status.
As it said, ladies’ umbrellas serve to protect the user from the rain while being fashionable at the same time. “They are a combination of comfort and style. Usually, ladies’ umbrellas have floral and feminine designs while others are windproof and compact.”
11. Promotional umbrella
Promotional umbrellas are produced to promote particular products or brands to the public. They of course bear a company’s logo, a brand logo, or even a promotional message. Generally given to people free, they can be of any design. The important thing is they convey a message both to the people who use them and people who see them.
Very large promotional umbrellas are often seen in outdoor dining areas of restaurants, notably in tourist areas such as boardwalks along popular beaches. In these instances, they are often given to restaurants in exchange for a logo and brand name being prominently displaced to potential purchasers.
Umbrella and Religion
From the moment the umbrella (parasol) was created nearly 4,000 years ago, it became associated with the ceremonies of “sun worshiping” religions. This association has never stopped; it is very much alive and well even today.
After the fall of Roman Empire and rise of Christianity, the Catholic Church incorporated the umbrella in several papal ceremonies. Although today popes no longer carry umbrellas personally, it remains very much part of their coat of arms. An actual umbrella, usually made from red and gold fabric, is still often used during succession ceremonies when a new pope assumes power and becomes the leader of Catholic Church. It is also used in various liturgies when it is held above the Holy Sacrament.
Chinese paper umbrellas are considered to be bringers of longevity and good fortune, and also play a role in wars against evil spirits. They are also present in celebration ceremonies such as weddings, a young man’s rite-of-passage, and funerals.
The religion that holds the umbrella in highest esteem is probably Buddhism. Followers of this religion view the umbrella as a symbol of Earth, center of the universe, and spiritual support. Buddhist religious umbrellas take a variety of forms, with a dome shape representing wisdom and the skirting representing compassion. Used in a variety of ceremonies, they are especially important in processional and mobile temples, where their use is a mark of respect toward attending dignitaries. It is not just coincidence that the name of the goddess Sitapatra translates as “white umbrella.”
The umbrella also plays a role in a number of other religions. It usually symbolizes the canopy of the heavens, shelter, and protection.
Umbrella and Culture
Being ubiquitous and extremely useful, it is hardly surprising that the umbrella has become integral to many aspects of common culture.
Simple mention of the word umbrella almost invariable brings up the iconic image of Gene Kelly, umbrella in hand, dancing and prancing in a downpour in the classic 1952 Hollywood film “Singing in the Rain.” Somewhat less iconic, but still memorable, is Fred Astaire dancing with an umbrella in the 1957 film “Funny Face.” And of course, who can forget the several scenes of Julie Andrews flying with her umbrella over the rooftops of London with her diminutive black umbrella in the 1964 film “Mary Poppins?” Likewise for Audrey Hepburn’s lovely lacy white parasol in the 1964 film “My Fair Lady?”
The umbrella also figures in the title or lyrics of numerous popular songs. My particular favorite, because I was young and impressionable at the time, is the 1966 hit by the Hollies under the title of “Bus Stop.” It recounts the story of how a young man and a young woman who meet and fall in love because he offers her refuge against the rain “under my umbrella.”
Being a writer, I am particularly fond of pithy, insightful quotations. Here is a selection of my favorites (among many more possible candidates) about umbrellas.
“All sorts of darkness and evil are now hiding themselves under the umbrella of religion” —Sunday Adelaja
“If it´s cold and cloudy outside,
And you want to be a great fella,
Make all your troubles go glide
Opening a smile as your umbrella.”―Ana Claudia Antunes
“But such a tiny and trivial thing as an umbrella can deprive you of the sight of such a stupendous fact as the sun.” —Meher Baba
“I judge how much a man cares for a woman by the space he allots her under a jointly shared umbrella.” —Jimmy Cannon
“Let a smile be your umbrella, and you’ll end up with a face full of rain.” —George Carlin
“An open umbrella is just a closed beautiful sky.” —Xavier Forneret
“The mind is like an umbrella. It’s most useful when open.” —Walter Gropius
“Prayer is asking for rain and faith is carrying the umbrella.” —Barbara Johnson
“Love me. Love my umbrella.” —James Joyce
“Worrying is stupid. It’s like walking around with an umbrella waiting for it to rain.” —Wiz Khalifa
“Illusions are like umbrellas. You no sooner get them than you lose them, and the loss always leaves a little painful wound.” —W. Somerset Maugham
“God is like an umbrella of illusion and belief; in rainy days we use him, in sunny days we forget him.” —Debasish Mridha
“Every seed wants to die in the soil! Every umbrella wants to live in a perpetually rainy world! Every mirror wants to see its own face in another mirror! Everything in this universe has dreams they wish to realize!” —Mehmet Murat ildan
“Those who want to get wet need no umbrella!” ―Mehmet Murat ildan
“My dreams are a stupid refuge, like an umbrella against a thunderbolt” —Fernando Pessoa
“When a storm of harassment disturbs our thinking and brings us down to our knees, the umbrella of our imagination can shield us against destructive aggression.” ―Erik Pevernagie
“A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.” —Mark Twain
“And maybe it’s foolish of me to save up for a rainy day in a world of desert sand, but I’ve lived, and worked through enough rainy days to feel the need to save up for an umbrella.” —Dean F. Wilson
“Compromise makes a good umbrella but a poor roof.” —American proverb
“If a man from humble beginnings gets rich, he will carry his umbrella at midnight.” —Indian proverb
“It’s no use carrying an umbrella if your shoes are leaking.” —Irish proverb
“Any fool carries an umbrella on a wet day, but the wise man carries it every day.” —Irish proverb
“The umbrella was made for rainy days; the white man uses it for the sun.” —Jamaican proverb
“Two lovers in the rain have no need of an umbrella.” —Japanese proverb
“Prepare the umbrella before it rains.” —Malay proverb
Umbrellas and Computers
As computers have become more and more powerful, programs more and more reliable, and hardware more and more miniaturized, the influence of computing on daily life has become more and more pervasive. A rather recent example is the “smart umbrella.”
In 2014, researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands created an umbrella with an integrated piezo sensor that detects raindrops falling on umbrella’s canopy. The collected data is then transferred via bluetooth to a smartphone and then on to a computer. Using these smart umbrellas, researchers are able to collect data from thousands of people going about their daily business, thus providing a cost-effective alternative to collecting data via numerous fixed gauges.
As a practical benefit, hundreds of mobile rain gauges could provide information for better prediction of urban flooding. Another potential benefit, by using a different the type of sensor in the canopy, smart umbrellas could become an effective weapon in the battle against air pollution by cost-effectively providing more detailed information on pollutant levels, and time and location of pollutants.
Commercially, there are now smart umbrellas sold to the general public with features to appeal to a variety of different users. For example, one feature predicts the weather in the specific area the user is currently occupying. Another feature helps prevent losing the umbrella, which if it happened would make any other feature academic.
Amazon offers “laptop computer umbrella notebook shoulder messenger gag cases” that look like shoulder bags but unfurl like an umbrella as sunscreen for laptop or tablet. A company called “computerumbrella.com” offers comprehensive services for managing computing infrastructure.
Umbrella is also the name of a Cisco internet protection software program. According to the company’s description, “Umbrella provides a first line of defense against threats from the internet. It basically means that anywhere you are accessing the internet, that traffic goes to Umbrella first. It therefore is your secure on-ramp to the internet.”
In particular, it acts to prevent access to any sites that are hosting malware, phishing campaigns, etc., so that such threats can be blocked before they ever reach the endpoint. It also does content filtering, so you can protect your network from going to any unwanted site you don’t want users to go to.
Cisco, of course, is not the only company offering such internet security packages. There are numerous competitors, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. These include:
- Barracuda Web Security and Filtering
- Forcepoint Web Security
- Kaspersky Security for Internet Gateways
- McAfee Web Protection
- Symantec Web Security Service
- Sophos Secure Web Gateway
- WebTitan Web Filter
- Zscaler Internet Access
Perhaps the most widespread use of the word umbrella is in the phrase “umbrella organization.” This means an association, council, or organization that organizes or controls the activities of several other organizations, all of which have a similar purpose. Generally, the members of the umbrella organization are largely or totally independent from the other members, so large international companies with numerous subsidiaries would not qualify. Rather, they would normally be referred to as “parent companies.” Such companies often use “umbrella branding,” i.e. they group a large number of products under a single brand name.
Samples of umbrella organizations would include:
- International Federation of Association Football (FIFA)
- International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM)
- International Music Council (IMC)
- Partnership for Rural Europe (PREPARE)
- Pesticide Action Network (PAN)
- SOS Children’s Villages International (SOSCVI)
- United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
- United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
And of course our own ACM.
Related to “umbrella organization” is the “umbrella term.” This is a general appellation that groups what at first glance may appear to be unrelated or only remotely related ideas or activities. For example, in a curriculum revision for computer science (ca. 2002), the ACM Education Board designated the word “computing” as an umbrella term for several related disciplines, including computer science, computer engineering, and management information systems.
Back to the Beginning
Although not embedded in the device itself, another feature of the modern smart umbrella is the offset shaft. Developed with the help of CAD (computer-aided design), unlike a conventional umbrella, the offset umbrella does not open with the canopy around a central shaft. Instead, the shaft is positioned to the side of the umbrella, leaving much more room for the user to take shelter from the rain. And perhaps more importantly, for two users to take shelter together from the rain.
Oh how useful that would have been to me as a callow youth in 1966 when the Hollies released their hit song.
Bus stop, wet day, She’s there, I say, Please share my umbrella. Bus comes, bus goes, She stays, love grows, Under my umbrella.