John Boyd Dunlop

Inventor (or re-inventor) of the pneumatic tyre

Inventor – or re-inventor – of the pneumatic tyre, John Boyd Dunlop was born in Ayrshire in 1840. He qualified as a veterinarian in 1859 and moved to Belfast in 1867 where, hypochondriacally concerned for his son’s supposedly delicate health, he devised a method of cushioning the wheels of a cycle passing over the granite setts and tramlines of Victorian streets.

Dunlop took out a patent on his ‘pneumatic tyre’ in 1888. In fact, a patent for an ‘aerial wheel’ had been registered in 1846 by another Scotsman, William Thomson of Kincardineshire. Dunlop admitted in 1890, ‘it is doubtful if my first patent is valid.’

With the help of Belfast cycle makers Edlin and Sinclair, Dunlop produced the first bicycle equipped with pneumatic tyres from Gloucester Street premises in 1889. That same year, he entered into partnership with the charismatic Harvey du Cros, businessman and president of the Irish Cyclist’s Association. The business they founded, the Pneumatic Tyre and Booth’s Cycle Agency, would become Dunlop Rubber Company in 1900.

For 10 months, Dunlop held a monopoly. Then in 1890, the Thomson patent expired and anyone was free to produce the device. Fortunately for Dunlop, only five days later, Charles K Welch patented a detachable tyre, the rights to which Dunlop promptly bought.

In 1895, Dunlop resigned from the company that bears his name to this day. The company also retained the use of his face as a trademark, which in certain African markets was taken for that of Christ.

John Boyd Dunlop died in Dublin in 1921.

Further Reading:
Celebrated Citizens of Belfast (2002) by J Bradbury; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by K Newmann; The Dunlop Story: The life, death and rebirth of a multinational (1989) by J MacMillan.