February 12, 2007

Dunlop

And the man behind the brand is...
John Dunlop

The streets of 1880s Belfast were pitted with granite outcroppings and tramlines, hardly the course of choice for young cyclists. Ten-year old Johnnie Dunlop pleaded with his father to create something to make his high-wheel tricycle rides more comfortable. His father, a prominent veterinarian, promised to do his best.

John Boyd Dunlop grew up in Scotland, the son of a tenant farmer.
He managed to get into the Royal Dick Veterinarian College in Edinburgh from which he migrated to Northern Ireland. Over the years he built his practice so that he employed 12 horseshoers. It wasn’t the classic background to revolutionize the transportation industry.

Dunlop started with a rubbered canvas and stretched it over a rubber tube which he attached to the periphery of a wooden disk. He inflated the tube with air and put it through some crude tests. The results were encouraging enough to continue working on tricycle tires based on the same principle.

On the night of February 28, 1888 the Dunlops gathered to secretly road test the new tire. A total eclipse of the moon injected added suspense but when Johnnie returned he beamed with pleasure about his ride. Dunlop proceeded to patent his tire and followed it up with two more patents in 1889, including one to cover the form of an inflation valve.

Dunlop’s new tire was so obviously better than solid tires that they began appearing on racing cycles within six months. William Hume, described as only a “medium rider,” was the first to use a Dunlop pneumatic tire. He crushed stronger riders in all three races he entered that day. The laughter in the crowd that greeted his “pudding tires” was quieted by day’s end.

The Pneumatic Tyre Company formed to meet the demand for the new tires. Dunlop received 300 pounds in cash and 3000 $1 shares in the newly formed venture. But it turned out Dunlop had not invented the pneumatic tire.
He had reinvented it. The patent office disallowed his claims citing an 1845 Aerial Wheel with air tubes submitted by R.W. Thomson. Thomson’s design, while sound, was ignored for nearly a half a century.

When his patent was ruled invalid Dunlop shifted from tires to bicycles.
His new bicycle rode on traditional solid tires, which were rapidly being replaced by his pneumatics. By 1895 he was gone from the business. A year later the Pneumatic Tyre Company became the Dunlop Pnuematic Tyre Company,
the forerunner of Dunlop Rubber.

John Dunlop lived to the advance age of 81, dying in 1921. Just before his death he published The History of the Pneumatic Tyre, a rambling reminiscence by an octogenarian looking back on the pivotal time in the development of the tire.

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