Dunlop Patents the Pneumatic Tire

The pneumatic tire designed by John Boyd Dunlop led to a revolution in transportation. It allowed bicycles, automobiles, and other land conveyances to travel with fewer shocks and vibrations from the road, decreasing wear and tear on the vehicles and increasing the comfort of their passengers.

Summary of Event

John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian, invented the first popular air-filled bicycle tire, patented in 1888. Unknown to him, Robert W. Thomson had patented a similar idea in 1845, but it did not become popular. Dunlop’s tires, built on the rims of actual cycle wheels, were encased in rubberized cloth wrapped between wheel spokes. These “mummy tires,” which rapidly became popular, were not very user-friendly. Thus, they were modified repeatedly by engineers and inventors at the Dunlop Rubber Company and elsewhere. Ultimately, they led to manufacture of the tires used on all modern motor vehicles. Pneumatic tires
Inventions;pneumatic tires
Dunlop, John Boyd
Automobiles;and pneumatic tires[Pneumatic tires]
Bicycles;and pneumatic tires[Pneumatic tires]
[kw]Dunlop Patents the Pneumatic Tire (Dec. 7, 1888)
[kw]Patents the Pneumatic Tire, Dunlop (Dec. 7, 1888)
[kw]Pneumatic Tire, Dunlop Patents the (Dec. 7, 1888)
[kw]Tire, Dunlop Patents the Pneumatic (Dec. 7, 1888)
Pneumatic tires
Inventions;pneumatic tires
Dunlop, John Boyd
Automobiles;and pneumatic tires[Pneumatic tires]
Bicycles;and pneumatic tires[Pneumatic tires]
[g]Ireland;Dec. 7, 1888: Dunlop Patents the Pneumatic Tire[5600]
[g]Great Britain;Dec. 7, 1888: Dunlop Patents the Pneumatic Tire[5600]
[c]Science and technology;Dec. 7, 1888: Dunlop Patents the Pneumatic Tire[5600]
[c]Transportation;Dec. 7, 1888: Dunlop Patents the Pneumatic Tire[5600]
Du Cros, Harvey
Edlin, Robert W.
Michelin, André
Michelin, Édouard
Thomson, Robert W.

Dunlop was born the son of a tenant farmer on February 5, 1840, at Dreghorn, Scotland. He attended elementary and high school nearby and studied veterinary medicine at the Royal Dick Veterinary College (now part of Edinburgh University). At the age of nineteen, Dunlop began practice in Edinburgh. He moved to Belfast in 1867 and built up the most extensive veterinary practice in Ireland. Unhappy with rough Irish roads and uncomfortable travel on solid rubber carriage or bicycle wheels, he thought for twenty years about designing tires that would overcome the vibration inherent in the solid tires then in use.

In 1887, Dunlop developed the first practical air-filled tire. The project began after Dunlop’s young son asked him to make a device to allow his solid-tired tricycle to run faster and more smoothly on the cobbled Dublin streets so he could outrace larger playmates in bicycle races. Dunlop set to work on the project. In his first experiment, Dunlop built around the periphery of a wooden disk a “pre-tire” made of a rubber inner tube covered with rubber-coated canvas. The pre-tire was inflated with air and then compared with a solid tire on a tricycle wheel by bowling each tire across Dunlop’s cobbled yard. The solid-tired wheel rolled a short way along the paved yard and fell over. The pre-tire rolled across the entire yard.

Next, Dunlop made two prototype tires he called “pneumatic tires” to fit over the solid tires on the tricycle. The tires, constructed on wooden rims, had canvas covers over inflated rubber inner tubes and were covered with rubber sheeting, which was tacked in place around the rim edges. These pneumatic tires were slipped over the solid tires on the tricycle and bound in place. The modified tricycle was tried on the night of February 28, 1888. It worked well, and its tires were undamaged by the rough test road.

Dunlop was well aware that he had created something that would be desired by many people besides his son. He continued to make and test prototype tires, and he patented the pneumatic tire on December 7, 1888. Dunlop equipped a bicycle with pneumatic tires, built on the wire-spoke rims of the cycle’s wheels. The way in which rubberized cloth was wrapped around each wheel and between the spokes led to the tires being called “mummy tires.” The special wheels used were made by Belfast’s Edlin and Company, owned by Robert W. Edlin Edlin, Robert W. . Exhaustive testing showed that they survived three thousand miles of cycling. Dunlop followed up his first patent with two others on March 8, 1889, including one for an improved tire valve.

Dunlop’s mummy tires began to find their way onto racing cycles after a June, 1889, Belfast meet in which they were used by racer William Hume. Deemed only a fair race contestant, Hume won all the races he entered, defeating much stronger riders. His performance, or rather the performance of Dunlop’s tires, excited the public so much that Edlin’s company quickly sold fifty bicycles equipped with mummy tires.

The commercial development of Dunlop’s tire began on November 18, 1889, with the founding of a small Dublin company first named the Pneumatic Tyre and Booth’s Cycle Agency Limited. It was renamed several times before it became the Dunlop Rubber Company in 1900. The company was controlled by Harvey Du Cros Du Cros, Harvey , a paper manufacturer and avid cyclist who bought Dunlop’s patents. Dunlop agreed to work for Du Cros at first, but in 1894, he quit the company and retired to Dublin to manufacture bicycle frames and tires. He died there on October 24, 1921.

From its founding, Du Cros’s company had trials and tribulations because of legal battles with Thomson’s estate, which claimed that the 1845 patent was being infringed. However, the company was able to survive, because the tires it manufactured had such important advantages over solid tires. Pneumatic tires nearly eliminated vibration, so riders were no longer as fatigued after long cycle trips. The tires minimized jarring, so cycles themselves lasted much longer than those having solid tires. The lack of jarring also made it feasible to use lighter cycle frames, which enabled cyclists go faster with less effort.

Despite these advantages, mummy tires were crudely designed and had to be fitted to wheels in a complex fashion that was beyond the skills of most cycle owners, so they were impossible for the owner to change. In addition, because of the questions about the validity of Dunlop’s patent, numerous countries—including France—refused to accept it. Thus, many companies set to work attempting to create a pneumatic tire with increased commercial viability.


Dunlop’s invention arrived at a propitious moment. By the late 1880’s, cycling and cycle racing had become popular pastimes enjoyed by thousands of Europeans and watched by tens of thousands of others. However, riding a bicycle was uncomfortable and fatiguing, posing a significant problem for many Europeans who cycled for enjoyment or for transportation to and from work every day. The pneumatic tire therefore rendered more appealing a means of transportation and a leisure-time pursuit that had already been gaining popularity even with significant disadvantages.

As time passed, more user-friendly bicycle tires were developed and were sold over-the-counter for customers to put on themselves. These included tires designed by Charles K. Welch Welch, Charles K. , who joined the Dunlop Rubber Company. Welch’s tire fit into the wheel rim and was held to it by wires. This made it fairly easy to put on and take off. Moreover, Welch’s work gave the Dunlop Rubber Company an incontestably valid patent on an attractive tire. Others developed still better tires. For example, William E. Bartlett invented a tire made entirely of rubber, which was held in place on the wheel by turning it over the rim edge after inflation.

At about the same time in France, André and Édouard Michelin Michelin, Édouard
Michelin, André became very well established in the cycle tire field. Their tires won races all over continental Europe, including a 750-mile race in 1891 from Paris to Brest and back. Soon after this race, the Michelin brothers announced that they would have pneumatic tires ready for use on automobiles by the late 1890’s; they did. In due time, others designed better pneumatic tires for both cycles and cars. Some leaders in the industry included the Goodyear, Goodrich, and Firestone companies. None of these companies or their refinements to the pneumatic tire would have come to pass as readily without the pioneering work of John Boyd Dunlop—or the relatively unappreciated earlier work of Robert W. Thomson Thomson, Robert W. .

Further Reading

  • Fitzpatrick, Jim. The Bicycle in Wartime: An Illustrated History. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1998. An interesting description of use of bicycle tires in wartime, from the experimental years, through the Boer War, to the 1990’s. Many illustrations.
  • French, Michael J. The U.S. Tire Industry: A History. Boston: Twayne, 1992. A nice description of the development of tires and the U.S. tire industry, with illustrations.
  • Lottman, Herbert R. The Michelin Men: Driving an Empire. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003. A solid, well-indexed history of the Michelin brothers, their tires, their company, and the tire industry. Contains a solid bibliography, an index, and good illustrations.
  • Mcmillan, James. The Dunlop Story: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Multi-National. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. A solid, well-indexed history of the Dunlop Rubber Company and its successes, trials, and tribulations beginning with invention of the pneumatic bicycle tire by John Boyd Dunlop.
  • Tomkins, Eric. The History of the Pneumatic Tyre. London: Eastland Press, 1981. Describes the history of the pneumatic tire, from Thomson’s and Dunlop’s inventions through the 1970’s. Well illustrated, and indexed. Explores bicycle, automobile, and war machine tires, and contains a number of interesting bibliographic references.

Goodyear Patents Vulcanized Rubber

Lenoir Patents the Internal Combustion Engine

Otto Invents a Practical Internal Combustion Engine

Benz Patents the First Practical Automobile

Diesel Patents the Diesel Engine

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Carl Benz; Gottlieb Daimler; Rudolf Diesel; Étienne Lenoir; Nikolaus August Otto. Pneumatic tires
Inventions;pneumatic tires
Dunlop, John Boyd
Automobiles;and pneumatic tires[Pneumatic tires]
Bicycles;and pneumatic tires[Pneumatic tires]