A world without tyres Part 1:

Published on November 11th, 2009

1845: William Thomson’s idea for the future

With the whole world being dependent on motorized transportation that runs not surprisingly on rubber tyres ever since the beginning of the 20th century, a world without tyres would be inconceivable today. Without ‘packaged air’ it would be virtually impossible to corner smoothly in any vehicle and braking would depend on the ability of metal to have some form of strong grip on the asphalt.

Comfort, puncture-free performance, safe cornering at high speed – in the field of personal mobility, all these things that are so important to us today and all this would not have been possible if not for an innovative Scotsman and a couple of important events and happenings that took place about one hundred and sixty four years ago. It all started with a Scottish inventor who went by the name of William Thomson, a Scotsman who patented the first pneumatic tyre made from rubber way back in the nineteenth century, and the year was 1845.

Through his patent, Scotsman Thomson was somehow able to anticipate the future. Back in those days, almost everything that moved on the roads had wheels with metal or wooden bands. Compared with the smooth asphalt strips we call roads and highways that we travel on daily now taken for granted, the roads those days were poor and deplorable to say the least, muddy and littered with nails that had come off wooden wheel bands and rims.

All in all such paths and so-called roads were not exactly ideal conditions for the first pneumatic tyres. However, these tyres were fortunate, because thanks to a lack of vehicles, they were hardly ever used. Their load capacities were inadequate for horse-drawn carriages and bicycle development was at that time still in at its infancy. Horses and horse drawn carriages were still the primary mode of land transportation at the time. The discovery was soon forgotten and Thomson went on to dream up other, more promising ideas, or so he thought.

In history, many discoveries and inventions occur twice. And so it came about that in 1863, an Irish veterinarian by the name of John Dunlop (this name seems to ring a bell of sorts… hmm…), had the same idea as Thomson. The story or rather legend goes that he was looking for more comfortable tyres for his daughter’s bicycle and that was how he invented the pneumatic tyre – for the second time.

Only this time the invention was more fortunate – it was not only invented by a more canny businessman than Thomson, but by then bicycles were far more developed so there were good opportunities for using the tyre. The pneumatic tyre signaled the start of individual mobility. Apart from rail vehicles, there is still today no larger form of transport, either on land or in the air, that is not fitted with tyres and offers relatively satisfactory speeds combined with steering precision.

The stuff that mobile dreams are made of starts with rubber and sulphur. Mixed together, with added pressure and heat, these two vulcanised to form rubber. Forced into the appropriate mould, this could subsequently be filled with air and wallah! the first pneumatic tyre was born. And this tyre could already do a great deal: the air contained in the rubber provided suspension for the wheel, its gripping characteristics ensured considerably better road holding and lower rolling resistance. Driving became easier, braking safer, steering more precise.


In the period following, the pneumatic tyre – as it was known then – soon outperformed the metal and solid rubber which had been used until then, although the bicycle riders of the day, the ‘velocipedists’, had to quickly become experts in the art of patching up their tyres. An excursion without a flat tyre was virtually unthinkable, impossible even, so it took quite a lot of sheer determination, patience and resilience to continue relying on the bicycle. Despite being highly susceptible to punctures, the early pneumatic tyres were still considerably better than the iron or solid rubber bands they replaced.

The bicycle tyre thus became the archetypal tyre and it would be hard to imagine life today without it. All land-based vehicles that do not run on rails and almost all aircraft are immobile without the air that comes packed in rubber. Even space travel needs tyres – the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 showed that the lunar rover could only be moved dynamically using pneumatic tyres. And so the humble tyre became fundamental to mankind’s mobility. And its development and evolution has continued unabated over time. As it matured, it provided the first cars with road grip. Its appearance also changed, as it gained the first tread patterns. To find out more, read the next piece of ‘A world without tyres’.

For more information and to feed your curiosity for knowledge and history where tyres are concerned, log on to www.conti-sime.com

text: Azdee Amir  pix: Continental



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