Dunlop, John Boyd (1840-1921) Scottish Inventor, Transportation Industry (Scientist)

John Boyd Dunlop is credited with inventing the pneumatic tire, or the air-filled rubber tire. In actual fact, Robert William Thomson had invented a similar tire in the mid-19th century, but his design failed to inspire its practical use. Dunlop, unaware of Thomson’s patent, introduced a better design, which happened to coincide with the explosion of the personal transportation revolution, as both bicycles and automobiles came into popular use at the very time of Dunlop’s invention. However, travel by these modes remained exceedingly uncomfortable until the pneumatic tire absorbed the shock of traveling over bumpy roads. Dunlop started a company (named after him) for producing pneumatic tires, thereby establishing an industry that thrived throughout the 20th century and proved key to the development of the era of improved transportation.

Dunlop was born on February 5, 1840, in Drehorn, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. He hailed from a family of farmers, but he decided not to return to the land, instead studying veterinary medicine at Edinburgh University (he undoubtedly witnessed the importance of vets while growing up on a farm). He qualified to practice at the young age of 19 and established his veterinary practice in Edinburgh, where he remained for almost a decade before moving his practice to Ireland, near Belfast, in 1867. There, he built up an extensive clientele and a successful practice in veterinary surgery.

Dunlop’s profession required wide-ranging travel over cobbled city streets or rough country roads on wheels made of the only materials available at the time—iron, wood, and solid rubber—each of which made for an exceedingly uncomfortable ride, he found. Handy with rubber, he began experimenting with ways to fashion a wheel that would reduce the shock of bumps. He requisitioned his nine-year-old son’s tricycle for use in his investigations, mounting his experimental wheels on its axles—legend has it that Dunlop did so to help his son win a race, but he may have simply used the nearest available vehicle.

In October 1887, Dunlop happened upon the optimal solution—the pneumatic tire, which consisted of a canvas jacket (or linen tape, according to one source) fitted with rubber treading and flaps attached with rubber cement to a rim; enclosed under this outer layer was a rubber inner tube that could be inflated with air by using a football pump. The air acted as a shock absorber, smoothing the ride. A subsequent design improvement attached the tire to the rim of the wheel by means of a wire. A little over a year later, in December 1888, he patented his invention.

Little did Dunlop realize that his invention had already been patented—by Robert William Thomson in 1845. However, Thomson’s innovation went practically unnoticed. What distinguished Thomson’s from Dunlop’s invention was less design (though Dunlop’s was an improvement) than timing: Dunlop’s introduction came as the personal transportation revolution was gaining momentum, as the automobile had recently been invented, and the bicycle was gaining popularity as a form of transportation as well as recreation.

At a bicycle race, the performance of Dun-lop’s pneumatic tire impressed W. H. Du Cros, inspiring him to form a partnership with Dun-lop. Together, they founded a company for manufacturing pneumatic tires, naming it after the product’s inventor—the Dunlop Rubber Company. The company had to pitch a legal battle against Thomson, which it won, in order to market what is now commonly acknowledged as Dunlop’s invention. The Dunlop Tire Company continues to exist, merged with the Goodyear Tire Company (named after the inventor of rubber vulcanization, charles goodyear).

Within a decade of the invention of the pneumatic tire, it had replaced the solid rubber tire in most applications, including both bicycles and cars. By then, however, Dunlop was ready to leave the business that he had founded. In 1896, he sold Du Clos not only his patent but also his share of the business for 3 million pounds, a pittance compared to the profitability of the tire industry. At about that same time, Andre and Edouard Michelin had translated Dunlop’s invention for use on automobiles and founded the company that bears their name.

After selling the business, Dunlop retired to Dublin, Ireland. He spent the remainder of his life there in relative obscurity, running a local drapery business. He died in Dublin on October 23, 1921.

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