John Boyd Dunlop: Veterinarian and inventor

Our inventors were more than just inventors—they were actresses, clocksmiths, entrepreneurs, and engineers. They brought their unique gifts and ways of thinking to the world of transportation, changing how we get from Point A to Point B forever. And our next inventor was (of all things) a veterinary surgeon. John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic or “air-filled” rubber tire.

Tires had previously been fashioned out of iron, wood, or solid rubber, which made for a bumpy ride. Dunlop brought his invention into the world at the same time personal transportation was on the rise—creating one of the most relevant transportation innovations of all time. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of a smooth bike ride—you can thank Dunlop.

Inventor profile: John Boyd Dunlop

John Boyd Dunlop was born in North Ayrshire, Scotland, on February 5, 1840. He came from a family of farmers, and the observations he made on the farm as a child engaged his interests toward the problems of road, rail, and sea transportation early on in his life.

John Boyd Dunlop. Photo from Wikipedia
John Boyd Dunlop.
Photo from Wikipedia

He studied veterinary medicine at Edinburgh University and was qualified to practice by the age of 19. He established a veterinary practice in Edinburgh, where he worked for almost a decade before moving his practice to Ireland, near Belfast, in 1867. He built up an extensive clientele practicing veterinary surgery and had one of the most successful practices in Ireland. At the age of 50, he had the largest practice in the entire country.

And then, John Boyd Dunlop did so much more—he laid the groundwork for all modern tires. He began experimenting with ways to reduce the shock of bumps in the road on cobblestone streets or through the countryside. The available materials at the time—iron, wood, and solid rubber—made travel quite uncomfortable. Some credit Dunlop’s profession, as it required him to travel, for his discoveries.

The pneumatic tire

Dunlop began experimenting with his son’s tricycle. He mounted his different developments of wheels on the tricycle axles and began to explore his idea: an air-filled tire that was softer and would make the ride smoother.

In 1887, Dunlop invented what would be the “new” tire. He first made a rubber tube and fitted it to the rim of a bike wheel. He then bound the rubber tube to the rim with strips of cloth and sealed it with liquid rubber to ensure that the tube was airtight. Lastly, he inflated the rubber tube with air to help absorb shock from the cobbled roads.

Dunlop on a bicycle, circa 1915. Photo from Wikipedia
Dunlop on a bicycle, circa 1915.
Photo from Wikipedia

In December 1888, Dunlop patented his invention. However, to Dunlop’s surprise, a similar design had already been patented by Robert William Thompson in 1845. But, Thompson’s invention had gone unnoticed, and Dunlop’s tire was set a part because of its timing: automobiles had just been invented and bicycles were gaining popularity as a means of transportation and recreation.

Success

Dunlop’s invention fueled the personal transportation revolution.

After being impressed with Dunlop’s invention at a bike race, industrialist and politician Arthur du Cros formed a partnership with him. Together they founded a company to manufacture Dunlop’s pneumatic tire, calling it the “Dunlop Rubber Company.” But the company had to win a legal battle against Thompson for claims to the patent to the pneumatic tire. They won, and were subsequently able to market the tire, which is now commonly acknowledged as Dunlop’s invention. The Dunlop Tire Company would eventually merge with the Goodyear Tire Company, which still exists today.

Advertising sign preserved at a museum. Photo from Wikipedia via Alf van Beem
Advertising sign preserved at a museum.
Photo from Wikipedia via Alf van Beem

A peculiar fellow

As it turns out, Dunlop wasn’t in the business for the fame or money, and he eventually sold his entire share of the company and his patent to du Cros for a mere three million pounds—a fraction of what the tire industry was amounting to at that time.

After selling the business, he retired to Dublin, Ireland, where he lived out the remainder of his life in “relative obscurity.” He ran a local drapery business and died at age 81 on October 23, 1921.

He had been a veterinary surgeon, inventor, and businessman. And eventually, Dunlop was just a regular man again—although he seemed to be anything but ordinary. In fact, most of our highlighted inventors were extraordinary people. They brought something different and new to the world of transportation. So, what could you bring?

References

Related links

(Video) Dr. Dunlop's Amazing Tire - How We Invented The World: www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_EZ3QuYYXU

(Video) The story of Irishman John Boyd Dunlop, inventor of air tires: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HgL_8XSNn8

(Website) Facts for kids: www.facts-about.org.uk/famous-people-facts-starting-with-j/john-boyd-dunlop.htm

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer