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John Boyd Dunlop

When John Boyd Dunlop invented his pneumatic bicycle tire in 1888 it was a tubular tire.

It had a rubber inner tube stitched inside a canvas outer casing, and glued to the rim, in the same fashion as a modern tubular tire.

Contrary to common belief, John Dunlop was not the inventor of the pneumatic tire. This was Robert William Thomson of Edinburgh, Scotland. At the age of twenty-four he was granted Patent No. 10996 on 10th June, 1846.

Thomson was compelled to carry out his experiments on heavy horse drawn vehicles lacking, as he did in the 1840’s the all important aid of the bicycle. Circumstances forced him to resort to leather for his treads and to build up the tire by hand. His tires were not wholly or readily detachable.

Robert Thompson’s tire never caught on due to the fact that the market was, at that time, so limited. It was expensive to produce, and with the only form of wheeled transport being horse drawn vehicles, it was not commercially viable.

Dunlop’s improvement on the idea, on the other hand, came at a perfect time. With the invention of the safety bicycle, and followed in the next decade by motorized vehicles with pneumatic tires.

Even so, Dunlop’s idea was not immediately accepted. People scoffed at his invention and called him “Pudding Wheels.” It appears however; the proof of the pudding in this case, was in the riding. When people started winning bicycle races on the new tires, his critics were permanently silenced.

John Boyd Dunlop like Thompson was also Scottish by birth. Born in Dreghorn, Ayrshire, in 1840; he studied in Edinburgh and migrated to Ireland in his early twenties. He was a qualified veterinary surgeon.

John Dunlop’s idea was financed by Harvey du Cros, a paper merchant, and prominent Irish business man. A small company was formed in Dublin, Ireland to manufacture the tires. This was the start of The Dunlop Rubber Company that still exists today.

In the years that followed there were more developments:

1890 C. K . Welch invented the wired attachment and well-base rim. (The clincher tire.)
1891 C. H . Woods, a cotton spinner, invented a perfect little valve. This took the place of Dunlop’s patent valve, which did not permit of deflation.
1893 F. Westwood invented cycle rims with tubular edges.
1893 C. K. Welch produced his cord casing system for pneumatic tires and the well-base motor rim.

John Boyd Dunlop died in 1921. Although he did not invent the first pneumatic tire, he was the first to produce a practical product. He introduced the word “Pneumatic” (As applied to tires.) into the English language. He never made a lot of money from his idea during his lifetime, but revolutionized not only the bicycle, but also every other form of transport on Earth.

The next time you pump your tires up; think of the bewhiskered old gentleman pictured at the beginning of this piece.

My source was: The Evolution of the Bicycle, by Tom Norton.
Picture from: VirtualScotland.co.uk

Reader Comments (2)

Quality post Dave, as usual. Here in Dublin, in 2006, a group of about 30 cyclists commemorated John Boyd Dunlop on the anniversary of his death.
We rode for a couple hours, repeating a loop through the streets where Dunlop's first factory was once located.
August 22, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter patrick
Here's to Mr. Dunlop. Without him, our buttocks would be quite sore.
August 22, 2007 | Unregistered Commenter Daniel
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