It was in this week in 1921 that John Boyd Dunlop died. A veterinary surgeon by profession, Dunlop is known the world over as the man who invented the pneumatic tyre in 1887, thus making bicycle and car travel much simpler and less expensive.
Except that he didn’t actually invent the pneumatic tyre. It was invented and indeed patented more than 40 years earlier by another Scot, Robert William Thomson, who I will profile in a future Back In The Day column – believe me, he deserves it as he is possibly the most under-appreciated Scottish inventor of them all.
Thomson’s patents for pneumatic tyres were taken out in 1846 and 1847 in France and the USA respectively. They describe a hollow rubber tube surrounded by leather and inflated by air.
Yet he was defeated by that fact that rubber production was still in its infancy and he just couldn’t get his invention to work properly at a cost-effective price.
Forty years on, and John Boyd Dunlop did manage to re-invent the pneumatic tyre with a design which he went on to develop commercially, making his name world-famous.
There are, of course, many Americans who think that Charles Goodyear invented tyres – he didn’t, but he did invent and patent the process of vulcanisation which made solid rubber tyres and many other rubber products possible.
Dunlop was born into a farming family at Dreghorn in Ayrshire on February 5, 1840.
He studied veterinary science at the Royal Dick Vet School in Edinburgh and practised as a vet in Scotland for 10 years before moving in 1867 to Downpatrick in County Down in what is now Northern Ireland.
With his brother James he set up a practice in Belfast which became one of the largest in Ireland. He married farmer’s daughter Margaret Stevenson in 1871 and they had a daughter and a son.
Dunlop had carried out several scientific experiments with rubber, especially rubber tubing for veterinary usages, but it was a problem with his nine-year-old son Johnny’s tricycle that led Dunlop to his great breakthrough.
In October, 1867, Dunlop came up with the idea of putting an inflated rubber tube around the wooden front wheel of his son’s trike that measured nearly a metre across.
He then rolled the new wheel alongside an old wheel and the rubberised wheel went much further. He added rubber tubes to the two smaller rear wheels of the trike and again the ride was easier and longer-lasting.
We know exactly what those early tyres looked like, because Dunlop gave one to the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in 1910 and it has a place of honour in the museum in Edinburgh to this day.
Realising he had hit on something special, Dunlop continued experimenting until he applied for a British patent in December, 1888, for what he called his “safety bicycle”. Some of the early versions were made in Scotland.
This patent was granted though the existence of Thomson’s earlier patents in France and the USA meant he could not claim to have invented the idea – his process, however, was recognised in its own right and there soon came proof that Dunlop’s tyres were revolutionary, as the champion Irish cyclist Willie Hume began using them in 1889 and he won almost every race he entered. The days of solid bicycle tyres were numbered.
Dunlop sold his patent rights to businessman William Bowden, and he sold them on to the industrialist William Harvey du Cros who persuaded Dunlop to exploit his patents. The two men established The Pneumatic Tyre and Booth’s Cycle Agency Limited which first manufactured Dunlop’s patent tyres in Dublin in December, 1889.
In 1892 the company expanded to England as the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company before the building of Fort Dunlop in 1900 in Birmingham as the Dunlop Rubber Company Limited.
Dunlop retired from the business in 1895, though he kept his shares making him comfortably off as du Cros sold the business for a sum reputed to be £3 million in 1896. Dunlop’s tires were adapted for the motor cars that came on to the scene, but the Scot did not really benefit as the company that bore his name was now in the hands of other entrepreneurs who expanded it into a great many fields, including the production of golf balls.
Always fastidious about his health, Dunlop supposedly did not suffer from any great illness during his life until his last days when he contracted a chill and died at his home in Dublin on October 23, 1921, aged 81.
NMS pays tribute to both Thomson and Dunlop on its website, stating: “John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre in 1888, unaware that Robert Thomson had already patented a design for a pneumatic tyre in 1846.
“Dunlop went on to market his design, initially for bicycles but the company that bore his name were soon making tyres for the new motor cars that were emerging in the 1890s.”
Louise Innes, principal curator of transport at NMS, said: “These tyres are icons of the modern world, changing lives across the planet.”
They certainly did that, and it’s for his re-invention and commercial development of the pneumatic tyre that Dunlop is still revered to this day.
By Hamish MacPherson