Biographies: John Boyd Dunlop (1840-1921)

Figure 1.--Here we see Johnnie on a bike with pneumatic tires. His first vehicle was a trike.

Rubber became a major industry in the 20th century. Most of travel every day on pneumatic rubber tires. The industry was a very minor one in the 19th century, used to produce waterproof garmets or elastic. Mist people traveled on swood or metal wheels. Amazingly the transition came avout because John Boyd Dunlop wanted to make a better tire for his son's tricycle. Rubber in fact became so important that the Japanese seizure of Malaya in World War II threaten to derail the entire Allied war effort.


John Dunlop was born in Scotland in 1840. His parents were farmers at Dreghorn in Ayrshire.


He attended Edinburgh Veterinary College and studied to be a veterinary surgeon. In 1867 he moved to Belfast and here he practiced as a veterinary surgeon.


Dunlop married and had a son. His child was called Johnnie.

Johnnie's Trike

As his son grew up he, like most children, wanted a bicycle. It was the most sought after thing boys and girl’s wanted. At the time they were quite expensive. Only boys from affluent familirs got bikes. How Johnnie got his nike is not quite clear. It is likely that it was a gift to him from his parents on his 10th birthday. Late 19th century children’s stories have scenarios in which the bicycle is given as a birthday gift. Johnnie might have got it as a Christmas present. This is a popular gift to give children in celebrating this festivity. Johnnie and his friends enjoyed cycling. For most of the time they cycled along the roads around the area where they lived. If they were not riding then they were in a small group discussing cycling, while their bicycles were propped up against a wall or laying on the grass. They may have been holding them as they talked about what they would do next.


One thing the boys might have talked about was the discomfort they felt as they rode along the cobbled streets. Many cities and towns in Scotland had cobbeled streets. Their cycles had solid rubber tyres at this time and as they rode they felt every bump and jolt. It sent vibrations through every bone in their body.


An activity which children like to do is to ride around a course in a given time. Each child is timed and the winner is the one who completes the course in the fastest time. It seems that this sort of game was played by Johnnie and his friends. It is possible that Johnnie was not the one who won in these races. He always wanted to win but some how or other he was always beaten by bigger and stronger boys who could outpace him and ride quicker than he could. There came a time when the boys decided to have a really big championship race. This they prepared for and trained by cycling everywhere. Johnnie was as determined as everyone else to win but how was he to do this? Father and son had a good relationship and his father liked to hear all Johnnie’s news. He soon learnt about the forth coming race and the desire of his son to win it. He had also often listened to his son’s complaint about cycling being an enjoyable but uncomfortable activity


John Dunlop thought he would try and do something about helping his son to train for the race and to make cycling a more comfortable activity. His first task was to watch his son and his friends when they rode along the cobbled streets. Dunlop came up with an idea to change the tyre. He thought that riding on a cushion of air would be more comfortable than riding with solid rubber tyres. He set to work. There are two stories of how Dunlop invented a new type of cycle tyre. He experimented in his back yard. He purchased rubber hose and fitted canvas around it then pumped air into it using a football pump. Dunlop had made the first successful pneumatic tyre. It is now believed that Dunlop had read about this idea and knew about others who had tried, but failed to make this type of tyre. In all likelihood Johnnie helped his father. It was most likely he who went on an errand to the shop to buy the rubber tubing the other items his father needed. He and his dad cut the canvas and stuck it together and then fixed it round the tubing which was fixed to the wheels of the bike.


Dad and son must have been equally pleased when they tested the wheels. First the solid tyre was sent spinning across the yard. It did not go so far before stopping and falling over. Then when the pneumatic tyre was sent spinning and it went all the way along the yard before hitting the wall and bouncing off it. Johnnie and his father cheered with joy for they knew they had solved both problems. Cycling would now be enjoyable and comfortable. Bicycles could be ridden faster with less effort so a little chap could ride as further as a stronger and bigger boy. Johnnie knew he was in with a chance to win. His father also knew that because he no doubt had a twinkle in his eye at the thought of his son’s cycle win.

The Big Race

The day of the race came. Johnnie rode up to the starting line on his bike, fitted with the pneumatic tyres. It is likely that the new wheels made Johnnie’s bike look strange. The other boys jibbed and made humorous remarks to Johnnie about the strange wheels. Johnny took them in his stride. He was dressed in a flat cap, Norfolk suit and lace up shoes as he lined up at the starting line waiting for the starting whistle. He wore no road safety clothing, as child cyclists of today would do for such events. Once the race started the joke was on the other foot. Johnnie’s bike bounced along the cobbled stoned course. Johnnie was soon in the lead. A position he was able to maintain as the other bikers, ridding on solid wheels tried to catch him up and over take him to win but they didn’t. It was Johnnie’s moment. He won. He was elated and happy that finally he had been able to out ride his bigger and stronger friends. He was the winner. His father was pleased that he had been able to help the son he loved to be a winner.

A New Company

The next day Johnnie’s friends called on him. They wanted to speak with his father. ‘Please Mr. Dunlop can you make me tyres like Johnnie’s?’ So it was that a new company called Dunlop was established to make pneumatic bicycle tyres. That day, in Dunlop’s backyard, as Johnnie watched his father make one of the first pneumatic tyres must have been one of the thrilling moments in not only bicycle history, but in the history of a vast new industry. Many other uses were found for rubber, but rubber tires for cars and trucks and other conveyances like bicycles is the single most important use. Its catalyst had been the problems of cycling experienced by a 10-year-old boy.

William Ferguson


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Created: 5:48 AM 1/2/2007
Last updated: 5:48 AM 1/2/2007