The pneumatic tyre was developed to help transform road travel and make journeys more comfortable, while reducing damage to vehicles. Its emergence can be credited to two different Scottish inventors – first Robert Thomson in the 1840s, who patented the tyre, and later John Boyd Dunlop some 40 years after, whose designs led to improvements for bicycles and later cars.
Road travel during the Age of Revolution was slow, and less than smooth. The wheels of most vehicles had solid rims, made of leather, metal or rubber. Coupled with a lack of suspension and poor road surfaces, this made travel by carriage, wagon and other road vehicles bumpy and uncomfortable.
In 1839, Charles Goodyear (1800 – 1860), an American chemist and engineer developed the process of vulcanisation. This involved adding sulphur to rubber solution to make it much stronger. Robert Thomson (1822-73) had the idea of using this strong, flexible rubber to create what we now know as a pneumatic tyre. Thomson produced a rubberised canvas tube, encased in a strong leather covering which could be bolted to the wheel frames of a carriage. When inflated, the tyre would provide a cushion between the wheel and the ground.
Thomson named his tyres ‘aerial wheels’ and successfully tested them in Hyde Park in London in 1847. They were used on a number of horse-drawn carriages, like this Brougham carriage, with one set of tyres lasting for an impressive 1,200 miles, with little wear-and-tear. However, a lack of demand coupled with high production costs meant Thomson’s invention failed to catch on. With motor-cars yet to be invented and the bicycle still in its infancy, his aerial wheels were ahead of their time.
In 1888, John Boyd Dunlop – unaware of Thomson’s patent – had a very similar idea. The story goes that Dunlop came up with his pneumatic tyre to try and prevent his son from getting headaches, as he was jolted around on his tricycle. His intervention was more timely, and Dunlop went on to market his design for bicycles and, later, motor cars. He remains a household name.
Did you know..?
Robert Thomson went on to formulate many other inventions, including the self-filling fountain pen.
Compare this carriage with a similar Brougham carriage from 1839, with solid wheel rims
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Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.