John Boyd Dunlop (1840–1921)
When he tried to improve his son’s tricycle in 1887, John Boyd Dunlop invented a product that is still in use on billions of vehicles and bicycles world-wide – the pneumatic tyre.
Dunlop grew up on a farm in Scotland and studied to be a vet. In 1867, he set up a veterinary practice in Belfast that over the next 20 years became the largest in the island of Ireland. When his young son complained that his tricycle with solid rubber tires was uncomfortable to ride on cobble-stone streets, he thought it would be interesting to find a solution. He experimented with a rubber air-tube and saw that it made a big improvement in comfort and speed. He took out a patent in 1888.
Dunlop then worked with a bicycle maker in Belfast to produce tricycles complete with pneumatic tyres. When a local cyclist asked for the same tyres and won a race the invention came to the attention of Harvey Du Cross, President of the Irish Cyclists Association. Dunlop and Du Cross went into business together in Dublin.
Dunlop’s patent was challenged successfully by another Scottish inventor, Robert William Thompson, who had patented a similar invention in France in 1846. However, by that time Du Cross and Dunlop had further patents for fixing methods, valves and rims, their tyres were in production and they were building a reputation.
Dunlop accepted a payment and shares in the company from Du Cross in exchange for his patent, which meant that he did not make much money personally. After the company was floated with new investors in 1896, he had no further involvement in making tyres. Nevertheless, the name remained ‘The Dunlop Rubber Company’ and the brand still exists. John Boyd Dunlop himself lived in retirement near Dublin.