Robert William Thomson was born on July 16th 1822
The names of the great Scottish inventors roll easily off the tongue; John Logie Baird,Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Macintosh, and John Dunlop inventor of the pneumatic tyre, or should that read re-inventor of the pneumatic tyre?
Indeed it should read re-inventor; the pneumatic tyre was in fact patented by one of Scotland’s most prolific, but now largely forgotten, inventors, Robert William Thomson on 10 December 1845, some 43 years before John Dunlop’s re-invention. Thomson’s “Aerial Wheels” were subsequently demonstrated in Regents Park London in 1847 and proved to all present that they could both reduce noise and improve passenger comfort.
Robert was born in Stonehaven, the was the son of a local woollen mill owner and was the eleventh of twelve children. Originally destined for the ministry, he apparently had great difficulty coming to terms with Latin,so refused his family’s wishes.
Instead, at age 14, Thomson was shipped to an uncle in the United States, where he served an apprenticeship with a merchant. Upon his return to Scotland, Thomson immersed himself in science, learning all he could about chemistry, electricity and astronomy, and soon began improving the design of mechanical devices in the family’s household. After serving an engineering apprenticeship, Thomson found work as a civil engineer and soon after designed a method of detonating explosive charges via electricity, this saved thousands of lives in the coal mining industry alone.
On December 10, 1845, at the age of 23, Thomson was granted a British patent for the very first pneumatic tyre, a device he called the “Aerial Wheel.” Intended for use on carriages (because bicycles had not yet been popularized), the Aerial Wheel used a rubberized fabric tube filled with pressurized air and encased in a thick leather outer skin. This leather “tire” was bolted to the rim, and the tread section was then stitched to the tyre’s sidewalls. By period accounts, Aerial Wheels yielded a much improved ride compared to conventional solid wheels, and even proved durable enough to accumulate more than 1,200 miles before wearing out. The following year Thomson applied for and received a French patent for his pneumatic tyre, and in 1847 he was granted a U.S. patent for his design.
Though revolutionary, Thomson’s Aerial Wheels were never commercially successful. The cost of the rubber needed for construction of the wheel’s pneumatic bladder priced the product beyond the means of most, and the improvement in ride quality failed to justify the expense in the eyes of the public.
It wasn’t until 1888 that another Scottish inventor, veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop, improved on Thomson’s design to create a pneumatic tire for bicycles, as a means of preventing the headaches suffered by his son when riding his bicycle on bumpy roads. In 1888, Dunlop was given his own patent for the improved pneumatic tyre, but two years later, this was rescinded due to its conflict with Thomson’s Aerial Wheel. Undeterred, Dunlop continued his work on the pneumatic tyre, and by 1890 was mass-producing tyres for bicycles at a factory in Belfast.