John Boyd Dunlop

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John Boyd Dunlop

John Boyd Dunlop
Few would argue that mans greates invention was the wheel. To our mind, the greatest improvment on the original concept was made by one John Boyd Dunlop - the man widely considered in historical circles as the father of the pneumatic tyre.

Dunlop was born in 1840 in the little Ayrshire village of Dreghorn. He took a degree in veterinary surgery at Edinburgh University at the age of nineteen, and by the 1880s had a successful practice in Belfast, where he had settled in 1867. He also had a son, Johnny, aged about ten, on whom he obviously doted, for he had bought the boy a little chain-driven tricycle on which to ride to school.

Johnny, however, was a typical small boy, and complained that the tricycle was not comfortable enough: the solid tyres, he claimed, jarred at him as he rode over the stony streets. So Dunlop set about finding some way of easing the road shocks. Inspired, possibly, by memories from his Edinburgh days of 'aerial wheels' invented by the Scottish engineer R. W. Thomson in 1845, he cut two discs of wood.

Round one of them he fitted an inflated sheet-rubber air tube, held in place by a strip of canvas nailed to the wooden 'wheel'. He bowled the two discs along the ground, and found that the one with the inflated tyre ran farther than the plain one. This, then, was the answer to Johnny's problem, and Dunlop decided to fit inflatable tyres to the rear wheels of the boy's tricycle. The rim was a circular strip of thin wood from a round cheese box, the tube was made from rubber sheeting stuck with solution and held to the rim by a spiral of canvas wound between the spokes; a tread of vulcanised rubber protected the tube from punctures.

A Chamber Of Rubber To Contain Air Under Pressure

Dunlop found that not only did these 'pneumatic tyres' (which were inflated, through a non-return valve, by a football pump) ease the road shocks, but also made it far easier to pedal the tricycle, which just rolled over the irregularities. Dunlop saw that there might be commercial possibilities in the idea and, on 23 July 1888, took out a patent at Belfast for a 'chamber of rubber or other suitable material to contain air under pressure or otherwise, fastened to the rim by the most convenient method'.

Next, he looked around for someone who would assist him in his experiments, and called on a firm of Belfast cycle agents, R. W. Edlin and Finlay Sinclair. They were naturally sceptical - after all Dunlop couldn't even ride a bicycle - so Dunlop put his invention to a simple test. Young Johnny challenged Edlin's eighteen-year-old son to a race - pneumatic-tyred tricycle against solid-tyred bicycle - and won. Convinced, Edlin and Sinclair built some cycles with specially widened forks to take the new tyres.

Dunlop asked them to make the front wheel of 28 inches diameter and the rear wheel of 34 inches. 'I was afraid the rear wheel, having to carry the principle weight of the rider and withstand the driving strain, would not wear well unless made large' he wrote. Although Edlin and Sinclair were impressed, Dunlop could not interest the big cycle companies in the pneumatic tyres, as they had huge stocks of components suitable only for solid-tyred machines, and were reluctant to take up an invention that would render their products obsolete overnight.

Racing cyclists, however, had no vested interests to protect, and Dunlop immediately aroused their curiosity by proclaiming that the pneumatic tyre would increase the speed of their machines. In the autumn of 1888, he arranged for local racing cyclists to try a pneumatic tyre at the Ormeau Park Track in Belfast. Among those who came along was William Hume of the Belfast Cruisers Cycle Club, who had just retired from competition after a fall from his high-wheeled ordinary bicycle. After trying Dunlop's pneumatic, he changed his mind, and decided to start racing again, using the new tyre.

John Boyd Dunlop

Edlin and Sinclair built him a racing cycle, but many events then were closed to all but solid-tyred machines. The first contest for which his bicycle was eligible was the Belfast Queen's College Sports, in 1889. Hume won all four races in which he was entered, beating three of the famous Du Cros brothers - Alfred, Willie and Harvey - who, at that time, were regarded as virtually invincible on their ordinaries. In fact, the Du Cros brothers were so convinced that they stood no chance against Hume, that they took the train home to Dublin without waiting for the conclusion of the race meeting.

To preserve family honour, a return match was arranged between Hume and the most accomplished cyclist of the six young Du Cros brothers - Arthur - a fortnight later at the North of Ireland Cricket Club Sports, on the same grass track course as before. This time, the ground was hard and dry, and Du Cros's solid-tyred Humber came in ahead of Hume, but the closeness of the match convinced Harvey Du Cros senior that there was 'more than mere air in the inflated tyre', and he arranged a meeting with Dunlop to discuss marketing the pneumatic tyre commercially.

A few weeks later, the pneumatic tyre was introduced to England, at the Liverpool Police Sports. Again, William Hume was the rider and, the moment he appeared on the field, a roar of contemptuous laughter went up. Shouts of derision-'pudding wheels ... mud cart ... steam roller ... cartwheels'- went up, for none of the spectators had ever seen anything like the 2-inch-section tyres fitted to the 'Humeatic' bicycle. 'If I'd known you were going to ride a machine like that old home-made Irish bicycle,' jeered the handicapper, 'I'd have put you on a longer mark.' However, when Hume won the one-mile and three-mile open handicaps with ease, the laughter turned to amazement.

When the machine was put on display in the window of a cycle store in Lime Street, Liverpool, after the race, the crowds overflowed the pavement onto the road, and the police had to be called in to keep order. The time was now ripe to market the invention. In November 1889, the prospectus of the Pneumatic Tyre Company was issued and within two years R. J. Mecredy could write that 'the pneumatic tyre had thoroughly revolutionised the cycling trade', for the pneumatic tyre was admirably suited to the recently introduced small-wheeled safety bicycle, and these two novelties formed a powerful sales combination.

Though John Boyd Dunlop's image and superscription were used in promoting the new tyre, he had no share in its commercial success, as he had sold his. patent for £700 to Harvey Du Cros; indeed, when the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company held a dinner at London's Hotel Metropole a decade later, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the pneumatic tyre, John Boyd Dunlop's name was not among the guests of honour - it was Harvey Du Cros to whom they drank a toast.

The Dunlop Company was just one of those concerns which, during the great cycle boom of the 1890s, was floated for vast sums by that king among company promotors, Terah Hooley. Hooley gained control of Dunlop for £3 million, and resold it for £5 million in one of the major coups of his flamboyant career. However, the original Dunlop tyre was far from perfect. Its biggest disadvantage was that it was cemented on to the rim, which made repairing punctures a major task.

As early as 1889, the Michelin brothers of Clermont-Ferrand, France, had devised a detachable pneumatic to overcome this problem, thus founding France's major tyre-manufacturing company. In 1890, W. E. Bartlett patented the Clincher tyre, in which the cover was retained on the rim by the pressure of the air in the tube, while in 1892 the Dunlop Company adopted Charles Kingston Welch's wired- on cover and well-base rim, which was patented in 1890 and still in world-wide use in 1977.

During the 1890s many rival types of pneumatic were put on the market, but it was the Dunlop-Welch tyre which set the pace (although it was the Clincher which found favour with motorists in the 1897-1925 period). Many men have made fortunes out of the pneumatic tyre, which was a fundamental part of the transportation revolution, but John Boyd Dunlop remained a vet all his life, although he eventually learned how to ride a bicycle. He died on 23 October 1921 in Dublin and his son, the world's first rider on pneumatics, pre-deceased him by a year.

Also see: Honour Roll - Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry
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