The word “pioneer” is frequently used when considering the thousands of minds who put the world on wheels, but John Boyd Dunlop of Scotland truly deserves that moniker. Dunlop is credited with developing the modern pneumatic, or air-filled tire.
The solid rubber tire was developed soon after American Charles Goodyear, who, quite by accident, discovered vulcanization in 1839, a way of combining rubber, sulfur and heat to create a rubbery substance that was flexible yet would hold its shape in hot or cold weather. While it was an improvement over a bare wooden or iron wheels, solid rubber tires could still rattle the bones of carriage passengers.
In 1845, Englishman Robert Thomson first conceived of an air-filled tube to provide a cushion between a carriage and the road, but his invention was rather crude – a rubber tube wrapped in leather – and was soon forgotten. Forty-three years would pass before the idea of a pneumatic tire would again be tested.
In 1887, Dunlop a practicing veterinary surgeon, watched as his 9-year–old son Johnny struggled with his tricycle mounted with solid rubber wheels. Using a big wooden disk as a wheel, he formed a tube using sheet rubber. He inserted a one-way valve, filling the tire with air until it was hard enough to support the weight of his son. To keep the air from escaping, Dunlop simply bent the valve and tied it off, not unlike tying off a balloon. To attach the “tire” to the wheel, he wrapped the tube in Irish linen and fastened it to the wooden disk with nails.
After testing his invention for several months, he applied for a patent for his pneumatic tire which he received on December 7, 1888 in Great Britain. Dunlop also applied for patents in France and America but was unable to secure patents in either country because it was felt that he had not sufficiently advanced the idea beyond that of Robert Thomson 43 years earlier. Nevertheless, automotive historians universally look at John Dunlop as the father of the modern pneumatic tire.
Dunlop’s tire was an immediate commercial success, initially used for bicycles, and was well proven and further developed in time for the birth of the automobile industry. Within 10 years, the air-filled tire had virtually replaced solid rubber models.
Dunlop joined the board of the newly–formed The Pneumatic Tyre and Booth’s Cycle Agency Limited which first manufactured Dunlop’s patented tires in Dublin on December 7, 1889. In 1892, the Company moved to England, first to Coventry as the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company, then in 1900 to Birmingham as the Dunlop Rubber Company Limited. Eventually, Dunlop was building tires around the globe.