Who Invented the Tire?
A tire (American English) or tyre (British English) is a ring-shaped vehicle component that covers the wheel’s rim to protect it and enable better vehicle performance. Most tires, such as those for automobiles and bicycles, provide traction between the vehicle and the road while providing a flexible cushion that absorbs shock.
The earliest tires were bands of leather, then iron, (later steel), placed on wooden wheels, used on carts and wagons. The tire would be heated in a forge fire, placed over the wheel and quenched, causing the metal to contract and fit tightly on the wheel.
A skilled worker, known as a wheelwright, carried out this work. The outer ring served to “tie” the wheel segments together for use, providing also a wear-resistant surface to the perimeter of the wheel. The word “tire” thus emerged as a variant spelling to refer to the metal bands used to tie wheels.
The first patent for what appears to be a standard pneumatic tire appeared in 1847 lodged by the Scots inventor Robert William Thomson. However, this never went into production. The first practical pneumatic tire was made in 1888 for his son Johnnie’s tricycle, in May Street, Belfast by Scots-born John Boyd Dunlop, proprietor of one of Ireland’s most prosperous veterinary practices.
It was an effort to prevent the headaches his 10-year-old son was given by jarring while riding on rough pavements. His doctor, John, later Sir John Fagan, had prescribed cycling as an exercise for the boy and, a regular visitor, Fagan participated in the development of the first pneumatic schemes.
In Dunlop’s tire patent specification dated 31 October 1888 his interest is only in its use in cycles and light vehicles. In September 1890 he was made aware of an earlier development but the company kept the information to itself.
In 1892 Dunlop’s patent was declared invalid because of prior art by forgotten fellow Scot Robert William Thomson of London (patents London 1845, France 1846, USA 1847); although Dunlop is credited with “realizing rubber could withstand the wear and tear of being a tire while retaining its resilience”.
John Boyd Dunlop and Harvey du Cros together worked through the ensuing considerable difficulties. They employed inventor Charles Kingston Welch and also acquired other rights and patents which allowed them some limited protection of their Pneumatic Tyre business’s position. Pneumatic Tyre would become Dunlop Rubber and Dunlop Tyres. The development of this technology hinged on myriad engineering advances.
The vulcanization of natural rubber which he patented in 1844 is credited to Charles Goodyear and Robert William Thomson. Synthetic rubbers were invented in the laboratories of Bayer in the 1920s.
In 1946, Michelin developed the radial tire method of construction. Michelin had bought the bankrupt Citroën automobile company in 1934, so it was able to fit this new technology immediately. Because of its superiority in handling and fuel economy, use of this technology quickly spread throughout Europe and Asia.
In the U.S., the outdated bias-ply tire construction persisted, with market share of 87% as late as 1967. Delay was caused by tire and automobile manufacturers in America “concerned about transition costs.” In 1968, Consumer Reports, an influential American magazine, acknowledged the superiority of radial construction, setting off a rapid decline in Michelin’s competitor technology. Even in the U.S., the radial tire now has a market share of 100%.