John Boyd Dunlop, the "father of the pneumatic tire," never achieved the lasting fame of his contemporaries Thomas A. Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. But time has shown his 1888 "reinvention" of the air-filled tire is equally significant to Mr. Edison's creation of the first electric light bulb and Mr. Bell's development of the telephone.
Most authorities agree that modern highway transportation—with its accompanying benefits of freedom of movement and accessibility to goods and services—would not have been possible were it not for the pneumatic tire; nor would the automobile have become the second-most-prized possession of many people in North America and other industrialized regions.
For this reason, Tire Business selected Mr. Dunlop as its "Newsmaker of the Century."
Unfortunately, attempts to patent his easy-rolling pneumatic tire proved unsuccessful. The air-filled tire had been patented 43 years earlier in 1845 by Robert William Thomson of Middlesex, England, as a disappointed Mr. Dunlop and his financial backers ultimately learned.
The existence of the Thomson patent, even though expired by that date, deprived Mr. Dunlop and his group of a monopoly on one of the most explosive markets in all of human history. Worse yet, by filing an unsuccessful patent claim on Mr. Dunlop's invention, they had alerted potential competitors everywhere, who soon began producing pneumatic tires of their own.
Even so, the group's fledgling company—the Pneumatic Tyre and Booth's Cycle Agency, founded earlier in the hope of capitalizing on the inventor's presumed patent rights—later was to evolve into the Dunlop Rubber Co. Like the "pneumatic tire" itself, the company eventually would become a household name.
By comparison, Mr. Dunlop's pneumatic-tire predecessor, Mr. Thomson, had been far less successful. His problem was in having introduced his so-called "aerial wheel" ahead of its time. Unable to develop a market for it in that horse-and-buggy era, he died in 1873, leaving the concept of an air-filled tire languishing until its rebirth 15 years later at the hands of Mr. Dunlop.
Legend holds that the Belfast, Ireland, veterinarian developed his prototype by winding a crude air-filled rubber tube around the perimeter of a wooden wheel and covering it with strips of canvas. The rolling ability of this primitive pneumatic was then compared with that of a solid wheel by rolling each one in turn across the rough surface of Mr. Dunlop's courtyard.
This experiment's success led him to develop a more practical set of pneumatic tires which, when mounted on his son's tricycle, were tested by father and son over the city's cobblestone streets.
Bicycles—invented some 28 years earlier and in widespread use by 1888—provided a needed market for Mr. Dunlop's pneumatic tire. Soon, the ease of rolling of such tires also was finding favor on other types of vehicles, such as racing sulkies pulled by trotting horses.
Lacking a patent on the pneumatic itself, Mr. Dunlop's company then attempted to recover a similar marketing advantage by acquiring other patents dealing with improvements on the inventor's original design.
Noteworthy among these were the patents of Charles Welsh, William Bartlett, A.T. Brown and G.F. Stillman—all of which related to various methods of attaching the tire to the wheel.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dunlop developed and patented an improved "cushion" or semi-solid bicycle tire, large numbers of which were exported to the U.S. as a means of helping the company weather the financial storm.
In 1891, he also invented a detachable pneumatic tire, held to the rim by an endless wire. Patents for that design were taken out in the name of the company, the inventor receiving no payment for them.
Brothers Edouard and Andre Michelin, who founded the tire company now bearing their name, attempted unsuccessfully to demonstrate the pneumatic tire's low rolling resistance in an 1895 auto race in France. But the tires proved so troublesome that the car on which they were mounted finished ninth. Undaunted, the Michelins began producing and marketing pneumatic auto tires the following year. Other manufacturers, such as the B.F. Goodrich Rubber Co. in the U.S., did so as well.
Strained relations between Mr. Dunlop and Harvey Du Cros, a former cycle-racing enthusiast who organized the company and subsequently served as its managing director, led the inventor to resign from the firm in 1895. Ironically, that was just one year before its name was changed to the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co. and seven years before it became the Dunlop Rubber Co.
In later years, Mr. Dunlop became increasingly critical of the firm's commercial use of his name and its advertising depicting him as a "dandy" with monocle and cane.
Mr. Dunlop died in 1921, at age 81. Printed accounts described his financial status at that time as comfortable but not wealthy—the inventor having sold his company stock prior to realizing the substantial gains that would have accrued in later years.
According to Mr. Dunlop's daughter, Jean McClintock—who published the inventor's memoirs in a 1923 book entitled, The History of the Pneumatic Tyre—most of his estate was derived not from the pneumatic tire but from his medical practice.
Mr. Dunlop's son, Johnnie, who had become almost as well known as his father due to his part in the pneumatic tire's invention, preceded the inventor in death by one year.
In addition to the air-filled tire itself, Mr. Dunlop is said to also have contributed the word "pneumatic" to our modern-day vocabulary.