THE PNEUMATIC TYRE
There was very nearly a Dunlop puncture in Dublin on Monday, when the inventor of the pneumatic tyre was visited by a gentleman armed with two revolvers, a dagger, and sundy other articles of offence. The case is fully reported in another column, and congratulations will be general to Mr Dunlop on his fortunate escape. I have a vivid recollection of half-an-hour I once spent in a railway carriage with a gentleman who considered it was necessary that I should have my throat cut in the interests of religion, and whatever may have been the case with Mr. Dunlop’s assailant, I can sympathise with him in his feelings at the time. The idea, however, of anyone attacking the inventor of the air-tyre, who is about as mild-mannered a gentleman as one could find, must appeal as one of life’s little ironies to those who know him.
– Wheeling Magazine, 22nd August, 1900
Considering the pneumatic tyre was such an important invention, it surprised me how much confusion exists over its invention. This brief summary is my attempt to present various facts relevant to its adoption and eventual everyday use on bicycles. The main points are:-
1839 VULCANIZATION: The process of changing the physical properties of rubber through application of sulphur and heat was first perfected in America by Charles Goodyear.
1846 SOLID RUBBER TYRES: Rubber manufacturer Thomas Hancock, who was conducting similar research in England, met with the same success as Goodyear. . The solid tyre was initially was used on carriages and steam-driven vehicles, and subsequently adapted for bicycles.
1845 THOMPSON AERIAL WHEEL: Scottish inventor Robert William Thompson was the actual inventor of the pneumatic tyre, and his earliest patent for it is dated 1845.
1882 THOMAS B. JEFFERY CLINCHER TYRE PATENT: Thomas B. Jeffery was an inventor and bicycle manufacturer who, with his partner, R. Philip Gormully, built and sold Rambler bicycles through his company, Gormully & Jeffery Mfg. Co, in Chicago from 1878 to 1900. His clincher tyre, like the Bartlett clincher tyre, had no wire beads. They held fast to the rim by pressure and the shape of their clincher beads. I’m not sure why the patent date is 1882 yet he did not introduce them to America until 1892. Perhaps the patent was sold to Dunlop?
1888 DUNLOP: J.B. Dunlop invented the inner tube and patented the pneumatic tyre. It was essentially a hosepipe inside an outer rubber tyre with treads. But the patent was reversed two years later because of Thompson’s previous patent.
Dunlop Cycle Co Ltd of Coventry was a separate concern, and this company became the Ariel Cycle Co Ltd around 1897.
Bicycles were made for J.B Dunlop by Edlin & Co of Belfast.
J.B. Dunlop patented a spring-frame bicycle called the Flexible, which was actually built. British patent date was 12th October 1889 and US patent December 1890.
1890 WELCH DETACHABLE WIRE BEAD TYRE: Some means had to be found to fix the tyre securely to the metal rim yet still allow for demounting and remounting it during repairs. First to develop a detachable pneumatic was Charles K. Welch of Tottenham, London, who filed a patent on it in September 1890, just ahead of others working on similar refinements. Unlike the Jeffery or Bartlett clincher tyres, his tyre used the wire-bead design we are more familiar with today. Dunlop promptly bought the patent.
1890 BARTLETT CLINCHER TYRE: William K. Bartlett of North British Rubber Co patented a similar tyre just five weeks later. Mr Bartlett got the jump on competitors merely by broadening an earlier patent application for a detachable non-pneumatic tire to include pneumatic construction as well. The Bartlett Clincher tyre subsequently became the first detachable pneumatic introduced to the market. Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co bought the Bartlett patent in 1897.
1891 WOODS TWO-WAY TYRE VALVE: The earliest tyre valves provided for easy inflation but not deflation. So inventor Charles H. Woods developed a valve that facilitated both operations. His two-way valve became standard in Great Britain and elsewhere and remains in use today.
1891 MICHELIN BROTHERS REMOVABLE PNEUMATIC TYRE: Edouard and André Michelin introduced the removable pneumatic tyre, which allowed the rider rather than a mechanic to fix a puncture quickly and efficiently. They used pneumatic tyres on a car for the first time in the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux Race.
1892 G&J AMERICAN BEADED-EDGE TYRE: The beaded-edge tyre made its American debut in 1892, produced by Gormully & Jeffrey.
1892 BROWN & STILLMAN PNEUMATIC TYRE: Alexander T. Brown and George F. Stillman, of Syracuse, N.Y, patented a pneumatic tyre for horseless carriages.
JOHN BOYD DUNLOP
John Boyd Dunlop was born in Dreghorn, Scotland. After studying at the University of Edinburgh, he became a veterinary surgeon and practiced for ten years at home before moving to Downpatrick, N. Ireland, in 1867 to establish the Downe Veterinary Clinic with his brother James. He later moved to Belfast.
His invention of the bicycle inner tube apparently occurred by chance. In 1888 his small son was prescribed cycling as cure for a heavy cold. W. Edlin & Co gave him a Quadrant tricycle without wheels for his son. Dunlop experimented with the boy’s tricycle by fitting wheels with inflated tubes made of canvas and bonded together with liquid rubber. He patented this idea in 1888, using the word ‘pneumatic’ for the first time, and W. Edlin and Co manufactured frames to fit the new tyre.
The captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club, Willie Hume, was one of the first to buy a bicycle fitted with pneumatic tyres. On 18th May 1889, Hume won all four events at the Queens College Sports in Belfast, and subsequently all but one of the cycling events at a Liverpool meeting. The tyre attracted much publicity. Bicycle manufacturers were working assiduously to reduce the weight of the recently-invented ‘safety bicycle’ and the pneumatic tyre became a crucial element of its development.
Dunlop’s patent was later declared invalid on the basis of Robert William Thomson’s prior patent. But Thompson’s patent duly expired. In 1890, Charles K. Welch patented his detachable tyre, the rights to which Dunlop promptly bought.
In 1895, Dunlop resigned from the company that bears his name to this day. The company also retained the use of his face as a trademark, which in certain African markets was taken for that of Christ.
John Boyd Dunlop died in Dublin in 1921.
W. EDLIN & Co
33 Garfield Street, Belfast
Robert William Edlin (born 2nd August, 1862) was the son of Robert Edlin and may have worked for Rudge & Co. He set up in business at 33 Garfield Street, Belfast in 1885. He supplied a Quadrant tricycle to John Boyd Dunlop, a Belfast veterinary surgeon, minus the driving wheels. Dunlop fitted his own wheels with pneumatic tyres. Edlin then made, with a partner Finlay Sinclair, a prototype cycle for Dunlop’s tyre in 1888. This led to Edlin working with Dunlop to make cycles to which pneumatic tyres could be fitted. Some 20 bicycles and six tricycles were made in 1889 for pneumatic tyres and the tyres were fitted to a further 24 machines bought from Rudge & Co. A company was set up to develop the invention. Edlin and Sinclair had £400 in shares and the company acquired the Garfield Street premises. However Edlin became dis-satisfied and resigned in 1892. He set up on his own account making pneumatic tyres at 299 Bradford Street, Birmingham, Warwickshire. By 1907 Edlin was trading in partnership with Sinclair again. Their 1908 catalogue offered six models, priced from £6 10s. to £11. He may also have made cycles as a 1912 directory lists Edlin Sons Ltd trading as cycle manufacturers but the last year they are listed is 1914 and shortly after the business closed.
DUNLOP PNEUMATIC TYRE co Ltd
In 1889 Dunlop entered into partnership with the charismatic William Harvey du Cros, businessman and president of the Irish Cyclist’s Association, first as the Pneumatic Tyre and Booth’s Cycle Agency. The Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co. Ltd was formed in Dublin to acquire and commercialise Dunlop’s patent for pneumatic tyres. Commercial production began in late 1890 in Belfast, and quickly expanded to fufill consumer demand. Dunlop assigned his patent to Du Cros in return for 1500 shares in the new company.
During the early 1890s Dunlop Tyre established divisions in Europe and North America and , during 1893, a branch office and factory in Melbourne, Australia. In 1896 the company registered a trademarkand incorporated a subsidiary in England. Although the pneumatic tyre was successful, Dunlop had financial difficulties, and had to sell its overseas operations. A significant disposal was the sale of the Australian division during 1899 to a Canadian consortium, which incorporated it as the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company of Australasia Ltd.
Initially the company subcontracted manufacture, but by 1902 it had its own manufacturing subsidiary, Dunlop Rubber Co. Ltd, in Birmingham. This factory became known as Fort Dunlop.
ROBERT WILLIAM THOMPSON
Robert’s father gave him a workshop and by the time he was 17 years old he had rebuilt his mother’s tangle so that wet linen could be passed through the rollers in either direction, had successfully designed and built a ribbon saw, and had completed the first working model of his elliptic rotary steam engine which he was to perfect in later life. He served an engineering apprenticeship in Aberdeen and Dundee before joining a civil engineering company in Glasgow. He then went to work for an Edinburgh firm of civil engineers where he devised a new method of detonating explosive charges by the use of electricity, thus greatly reducing the loss of lives in mines throughout the world. Thomson next worked as a railway engineer and supervised the blasting of chalk cliffs near Dover for the South Eastern Railway. Soon he set up his own railway consultancy business and proposed the line for the Eastern Counties railway which was accepted by parliament and eventually developed.
Thomson was only 23 years old when he patented the pneumatic tyre he was granted a patent in France in1846 and in the USA in 1847. His tyre consisted of a hollow belt of India-rubber inflated with air so that the wheels presented ‘a cushion of a to the ground, rail or track on which they run.’ This elastic belt of rubberised canvas was enclosed within a strong outer casing of leather which was bolted to the wheel. Thomson’s Aerial Wheels were demonstrated in London’s Regent Park in March 1847 and were fitted to several horse-drawn carriages, greatly improving the comfort of travel and reducing noise. One set ran for 1200 miles without sign of deterioration. However, despite satisfactory testing the tyre developed further at this time because the North British Rubber Company was unable to supply the strong thin rubber necessary for the inner tubes. For many years Thomson was frustrated by this lack of thin rubber and he turned to the development of his solid rubber tyres. It was not until 43 years later that the pneumatic tyre returned when it was developed as a bicycle tyre by John Boyd Dunlop. Dunlop was granted a patent in 1888 but two years later was officially informed that it was invalid as Thomsons patent preceded it.
Other inventions were the self-filling fountain pen, which he exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851, as well as an invalid chair with solid rubber tyres.
The following year he accepted a post in Java, where he designed new machinery for the production of sugar, thus greatly increasing profitability. During this time he invented the first portable steam crane but did not bother to patent it. Whilst in Java he married Clara Hertz, a clever and charming Bohemian lady who was a continuing source of support and encouragement to him the remainder of his life. They had two sons and two daughters, all of whom achieved distinction in different fields but who died without heirs.
Robert and Clara returned to Scotland in 1862. Despite ill health, which latterly confined him to a couch, Thomson’s genius was undiminished and some of his most significant work was done during the following ten years. In 1867 he patented solid India-rubber tyres for his road steamers. The Scotsman described this application of vulcanised India-rubber to the wheels of road steamers as ‘the greatest step which had ever been made in the use of steam on common roads.’ The resilience of the stout rubber tyres allowed his lightweight five ton steam engine to run on hard or soft, wet or dry surfaces, over obstacles, uphill or downhill. In addition, the thick rubber tyres did not damage the roads as did the iron wheels of heavy traction engines. Thomson’s first road steamers, manufactured by Tennants of Leith, were fitted with three wheels, the small single wheel at the front being directly below the steering wheel. The tyres, which were 5″ thick, were corrugated and adhered to the wheel by friction.
Thomson’s road steamers, often drawing four fully loaded coal wagons totalling 40 tons up and down steep gradients, excited great interest in the streets of Edinburgh. Soon the first omnibus was in service between Edinburgh and Leith. Engines were exported to Java, India and Brazil, and by 1870 were being manufactured under licence in both Britain and the USA. Demonstrations of the engine’s ability to plough effortlessly with two double-furrow ploughs had a major impact on farming practices and led to the eventual demise of the working farm horse.
R. W. Thomson, the versatile genius, died at his home in Moray Place, Edinburgh, in 1873, aged 50.
R.W. THOMPSON’S PATENTS & DEVELOPMENTS
Writing and drawing instruments (the self-filling pen).
Improvements in obtaining and applying motive power.
Dividing hard substances. such as rock. stone and coal.
Improvements in steam gauges.
Applying steam power in cultivating land.
Elastic wheel tyres.
Guiding road streamers on street tramways.
Elastic wheel tyres.
Elastic beds, seats and other supports or cushions.
He was also the originator of: reversible washing machine mangles; the ribbon saw; the Elliptical rotary engine; the use of electricity to detonate explosive charges; machinery for sugar manufacturing; the portable steam crane; hydraulic dry dock.
THE WELCH-DUNLOP TYRE
As mentioned elsewhere on this page, the Welch tyre was patented soon after the Thompson patent expired, so Dunlop bought it immediately.
Although it’s obviously very difficult to find surviving examples of tyres of this era, tyre inflator pumps, while rare, can still sometimes be found. The Welch-Dunlop tyre pump pictured below was fitted to my 1898 Columbia Ladies Chainless bicycle.
NORTH BRITISH RUBBER Co
Castle Mills, Edinburgh, Scotland
The advertisement above (adapted for my Online Sunbeam Bicycle Museum) is interesting in that it combines two products, Sunbeam bicycles and Clincher Tyres. Both were launched in America in the 1890s, a boom time for both bicycle and tyre manufacturers. This was also the beginning of the advertising industry as we now know it. In America and France in particular, full colour posters used dynamic messages and pictures of women to launch products …with such success that they transcended mere adverts to become a new artistic genre. Adverts in Great Britain (below) were somewhat staid by comparison.
I don’t have Clincher tyres on the 1901 Sunbeam; but I have at least managed to add a brass Clincher tyre inflator.
Despite the name, the North British Rubber Company was American owned and run.
Though Great Britain didn’t have the artistic colour posters, thanks to companies such as The North British Rubber Company we did at least have humour in our ads…
You can see various patent drawings on the next page…
Rubber tyre history – http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-3160230/Evolution-of-today-s-pneumatic.html
Edlin history – V-CC & Ray Miller’s Encyclopaedia.
Robert William Thompson history – http://www.mearns.org.uk/stonehaven/thomson.htm