Pneumatic Tires


Robert Thomson

The wheel is a seminal invention, widely regarded as one of the most important in human history. However, early wooden and stone wheels were far less useful than their modern air-filled rubber counterparts, the pneumatic tire.

Despite their ubiquity today, it’s amazing that the pneumatic (air-filled) tire initially went all but unnoticed.

Scottish inventor Robert Thomson patented the first pneumatic tire, used for bicycles, in France in 1846 and the US in 1847. The tires became a reasonable local success then pilfered out.

Thomson left school at age 14 and spent two years with an uncle in the US, in Charleston, South Carolina, learning to work as a merchant. After returning home to Scotland, he taught himself science and other arts needed to become an inventor.

Thomson’s first invention was a device to detonate explosives from afar using electricity. He worked for the railroad barons Stephenson’s for a while then left to create his own railroad consulting business.

Using a “throw stuff against a wall until something sticks” approach he invented and patented the pneumatic tire in 1845 at age 23.

Thomson’s tire was technically complete but the business model had several major flaws, most of which he had no control over. First, there was little use for the tires: they were too weak to support a full-size buggy and bicycles were still new and uncommon. Roads were typically unpaved or paved with cobblestones that would pop pneumatic tires. Finally, the tires were expensive to produce and purchase.

High price and low utility doomed Thomson’s tire at least until technology caught up. That didn’t happen for many years.

Thomson died in 1873, at age 50. Most of his patents expired.

In 1887, retired veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop re-invented Thomson’s tire and founded his own tire company, Dunlop. Frenchman AndrĂ© Michelin re-invented Thomson’s tire and founded his own company the following year, with named after himself. Both Dunlop and Michelin’s tire companies still exist today.

Besides the tire and explosive detonator, Thomson is also credited with inventing the fountain pen.