We take the pneumatic tyre largely for granted these days. It’s difficult to appreciate the difference that riding on a cushion of air in the form of our car, van or motorcycle tyres has made to the comfort, handling and safety of motor vehicles compared with the steel-rimmed or solid rubber wheels which were the norm on road vehicles 150 years ago. When we purchase best price replacement tyres, whether from the high street fitting agency or, increasingly from online retailers such as Avatyre, we scarcely pause to consider how life might have been without them. But who do we credit with the invention of this development to which we owe the development of modern road transport?
Dunlop’s Bike tyre
Common wisdom has it that the pneumatic tyre was invented by Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop. A vet by profession, Dunlop was practicing in Northern Ireland in the late 1880’s when his son complained of the discomfort caused by riding his bike over the cobbled city streets of Belfast. Having considered the problem, Dunlop came up with the idea of a sealed tube inside the rubber tyre which would give a softer ride. What Dunlop hadn’t appreciated, but quickly became apparent, was that the air-filled tyres also made his son’s bike considerably faster than it had been before. Thrilled with this discovery, Dunlop approached a local cycling champion and persuaded him to try his air-filled tyres in his next race – with spectacular and decisive results. Dunlop was overwhelmed with demand for his “new” product, the Dunlop Rubber Company was formed (an important name in car tyres to this day) and the rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it?
Thompson’s “prior art”
What Dunlop was blissfully unaware of is that his fellow Scot, Robert Thompson, had come up with a very similar idea some 43 years earlier. In 1845, Thompson had patented what he described as an “Aerial Wheel”. Since his invention predated even the first bicycles, and certainly came before road vehicles had made their first appearance, Thompson’s invention had been applied to the horse drawn carriages of the time. In a demonstration staged in Regent’s Park, Thompson had a carriage fitted with his Aerial Wheels drawn alongside a carriage with traditional steel-rimmed tyres. Just as Dunlop was to demonstrate nearly half a century later, the pneumatic tyres were easier to pull, and therefore faster, as well as being almost silent compared with the conventional carriage wheels.
Thompson was a prolific inventor (the fountain pen was one of his earliest patents) and Historic UK has an appreciation of the man and his inventions on its website. Unfortunately for him, many of his inventions were ahead of their time. The Aerial Wheel, or pneumatic tyre was probably one of them. In the absence of motor vehicles, the applications and advantages of an air-filled tyre were limited. Also, natural rubber was a scarce commodity and therefore expensive. Cheap tyres, as we know them today, were for the future.
As a result, Thompson’s patent languished unused – until Dunlop, entirely independently, stumbled upon the same idea.
So who did invent the pneumatic tyre – Thompson or Dunlop? Probably the safest conclusion that we can come to is… that they both did!
About the author
Simon Jennings is a social historian working for one of Scotland’s largest charitable trusts. A specialist in the history of the industrial revolution, he has long had an interest in the distinguished tradition of Scottish inventors. He is currently working on a history of coal mining in the Scottish Coalfields but still finds time for a regular round of golf.