Loads of mileage in Dunlop’s invention

John Boyd Dunlop was a vet to trade - his idea came to him while watching his son struggle with solid rubber tyres on his tricycle
John Boyd Dunlop was a vet to trade - his idea came to him while watching his son struggle with solid rubber tyres on his tricycle
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John Boyd Dunlop. Born: 5 February, 1840 in Ayrshire. Died: 23 October, 1921 in Dublin

He was born on 5 February, 1840, on a farm at Dreghorn, Ayrshire, and studied to be a vet at the ­Royal School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, before moving to ­Belfast in 1867.

Professor Alexander Rae, professor of engineering at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said: “His legacy lives on after more than 100 years. When you mention the name Dunlop you instantly think of tyres.”

He added: “Dunlop was born in Ayrshire, but spent most of his time in Ireland. He was a vet by trade and travelled over rough roads on ­carriages with solid wheels.

“His son also had some medical issues and felt it uncomfortable to ride a bike with solid rubber tyres.”

The story goes that Dunlop was watching his young son riding over cobbled ground. He noticed that his little boy was not going very fast and did not seem very comfortable.

Dunlop took his son’s tricycle, wrapped its wheels in thin rubber sheets, glued them together and inflated them with a football pump. That way he developed the first air cushioning system in history,

Less than a year later, Dunlop’s invention made its racing debut on two wheels.

Dunlop patented the idea in 1888 and the following year Dunlop Tyres began production at a factory in Dublin.

The patent was challenged by Robert William Thomson, another Scottish inventor. He claimed to have created it in France in 1846 and in America the following year. ­However, his invention was ­different to that made by Dunlop, who was able to keep the patent.

In 1893, Dunlop opened its first tyre tyre factory in ­mainland Europe at Hanau, Germany.

By 1895, Dunlop tyres were also being sold in France and Canada, and manufactured in Australia and the USA.

He transferred control of the ­patent and the company in 1896, at the age of 56, to William Harvey Du Cros.

By 1898, the business had ­outgrown its Dublin base, and ­production was transferred first to Coventry and then in 1902 to a 400 acre site in Birmingham – which later became known to the world as Fort Dunlop.

In 1910, Dunlop planted its flag in Malaya, establishing 50,000 acres of rubber plantation. In 1913, the first Japanese tyre factory opened its gates in Kobe.

Professor Rae said: “He did well out of the sale, but didn’t really make any substantial money.

“Dunlop became synonymous with motor racing in the 1950s and 60s, only to be overtaken by Goodyear and Pirelli.

“Since then it has become more associated with the aviation industry.”