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From discomfort to joy: Dunlop’s pneumatic bicycle tyre


The credit for the pneumatic tyre must go to two men: John Boyd Dunlop, who developed it in Ireland in 1888, and Robert W. Thomson of England who had patented it 43 years earlier in 1845. By a strange coincidence, the two men invented the same thing decades apart, although neither one was aware of the other.

Yet that is exactly what happened. Thomson, who was researching a full decade before Dunlop, was the true inventor but he had the misfortune of introducing the pneumatic tyre too far ahead of its time.


Thomson, who was more confident than Dunlop in the future of the air-inflated tyre, saw his hopes for the pneumatic dashed by an unresponsive buying public and his invention was soon forgotten. He was unable to establish a market for it in that horse-and-buggy era, and so Thomson’s name is little known by the general public and often appears as a mere footnote on the pages of history. Perhaps just as ironic is the fact that Dunlop, who had less faith in the pneumatic tyre as the optimum means of dampening road vibration, saw his invention sweep the world and has since been honoured as one of the world’s greatest benefactors.

John Dunlop was a Scottish vet living in Belfast. Sometime in 1887, when his son complained of a sore bottom after riding his bicycle to school over cobbled streets, Dunlop’s solution was to replace the hard rubber tyres with air-filled pneumatic ones and he noticed that the ride became a lot smoother.

This proved not only more comfortable but faster too, as his son began consistently winning cycle races. At a famous cycle race on the Queen’s College playing fields in May 1889, Dunlop persuaded the cycle champion Willie Hume to use his new pneumatic tyres. Hume won the race, creating such a demand for the new tyres that the Dunlop Rubber Company was swiftly formed. The invention caught on like wild fire and soon Dunlop’s tyre replaced all other forms of tyres in the world.


Extracted from The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes by Tom Ambrose

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