Riding On Air: How Cars Started Using Pneumatic Tires

October 10, 2022

Cars, trucks, motorcycles, and even airplanes all have one thing in common: the pneumatic tire (or tyre for our British friends). For automobiles, we will consume an astounding 2.25 billion of them worldwide in 2022 making them second only to fuel in terms of consumables for our cars.

There’s a reason that automobiles started with them and continue to use these cushions of air. They have a conforming contact patch for great road holding which also serves as a critical component in the car’s suspension for added shock absorption. Meanwhile, they are also durable, lightweight, and inexpensive to manufacture. All of that adds up to a winning combination that has only one downside which is that they can go flat.

Pirelli has been promoting its 150th anniversary heavily this year, but the pneumatic tire itself goes all the way back to 1845 when it was first patented -- 34 years before Edison’s light bulb. Tire technology has come a long way, yet it is still the same simple idea that it started with that endures today. No one seems to have come up with a better way to keep our cars on the road yet!

We’ll go back to the beginning and explore the fascinating history of this clever idea that has kept automobiles running smoothly and safely since 1895.

Thomson's U.S. Patent No. 5,104

The Time Before Cars

We know the names of many of the early entrepreneurs who built tire companies, but I bet no one knows the name of the fellow who actually invented them. It was a forgotten Scottish inventor named Robert Thomson. As a boy, he was curious and always tinkering about. At only 23 years old, he imagined a rubberized canvas belt inflated with air and encased in leather that was bolted to a wheel. 

Robert Thomson

Thomson earned a patent in Britain in 1845 for his idea. In that same year he even demonstrated them on horse-drawn carriages in London where they were noted for a comfortable and quiet ride. Thomson never commercialized them, but he planted the seed. (He was a prolific inventor, with the fountain pen being among his creations.) 

The name many associate with the first tire is Dunlop, and rightfully so as he was the first person to commercialize the pneumatic tire. John Boyd Dunlop was also a Scot like Thomson but he resided in Belfast. 

The inspiration for his “invention” was that he had an ill son named Johnnie. The boy’s doctor suggested that he ride a tricycle for exercise. However, the clattering ride gave Dunlop’s child bad headaches, so he cushioned his wheels with an inflated tube in a case, similar to Thomson’s. 

Johnnie Dunlop's trike

Dunlop first developed his tire in October 1887. Thinking that this was a fine invention, he tried to patent it in 1888, but was soon rejected due to Thomson’s pre-existing patent four decades earlier. Dunlop was undeterred and kept experimenting -- with his next application on a bicycle wheel. Cyclists started using them and dominated racing with their better contact patch that offered more traction and comfort for the athlete.

Dunlop and his financial partner Harvey Du Cros founded Pneumatic Tire, the original name of the company we now know as Dunlop. The business pioneered much of the early techniques for tire construction, including using vulcanized rubber and the “clincher” wire bead which secured the tire to the wheel to better handle the lateral forces of cornering.

Jenatzy in Le Jamais Contente after breaking 100 km/hr in 1899

Michelin: Riding on Air

Carriage tires made of solid rubber were already in use as a way to add a modicum of comfort and quiet. When Benz invented the car in 1886, the Benz Patent Motorcar also used solid rubber tires (of Benz’s own design, nonetheless). 

It was the French Michelin brothers, Andre and Edouard, who first made an inflatable tire for use on an automobile. They started making pneumatics for bicycles and carriages, including a patent for the detachable tire in 1891 (similar to the “clincher” that Dunlop had developed).  

The crossover to the nascent automobile happened in 1895. Seeing the opportunity, the Michelin brothers took an interest in cars. They developed a tire for an Eclair motorcar as a way to promote their innovation. The Michelins entered their car in the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race. While it didn’t win, they did prove that inflatable tires were reliable, safe, and comfortable. The age of riding on air had begun! 

Up to this point wheels and tires mimicked bicycle tires which had large diameters and were very narrow. The forebear of the modern tire appeared in 1899 when the Michelin brothers agreed to assist Camille Jenatzy in his attempt to set a land speed record. They designed a more stable tire with a smaller diameter and wider profile to fit Jenatzy’s torpedo-shaped speedster called Le Jamais Contente (“never contented”). The effort was a success when his car was the first to crack the 100 km/hr barrier -- a significant milestone in automotive history! (By the way, it was an electric car. An early version of Ludicrous Mode, perhaps?)

Vintage Continental advertisement

First Wave Tire Companies

By the turn of the 20th century, automobiles were still rare but growing rapidly in popularity. Commensurate with that rise was the increasing demand for pneumatic tires which were already inextricably tied together. The early suppliers were rubber manufacturers that made products for other applications, like hoses, fittings, textiles, belts, and even rubber horseshoes. 

The early tire producers had already been in the business for decades. Belgium’s Engelbert (1868), Germany’s Continental (1871), Italy’s Pirelli (1872), and the aforementioned Michelin had been rubber manufacturers that opportunistically entered the pneumatic tire business.

These pioneers were followed by the firms that were seizing the moment of the car. These included Dunlop (1889), America’s Goodyear (1898), Britain’s Avon (1904), and Japan’s Sumitomo (1909). 

Tire technology evolved quickly alongside the increase in power and performance of the automobile. Goodyear provided Henry Ford with his first race tire in 1901. Two years later, the company developed and patented the tubeless tire. Similarly, Continental patented the first grooved tire in 1904, while the radial-ply tire which was safer and more efficient was invented in 1914 in Britain. 

Dunlop Bridge at Le Mans

Still Rolling

Tire technology has come a long way. Now tires are made of synthetic materials rather than rubber. They have complex tread patterns for grip and noise reduction, use tubeless technology, and have sophisticated internal construction with radial-ply designs that utilize metal and carbon fiber materials. The most recent commercial advancement has been run-flat tires. 

Looking ahead, many experiments have been conducted on “airless” or non-inflatable tires, but to date, none have been used commercially for automobiles. (Moon rovers, yes, but not on Earth!) Pneumatic tires have endured and their demise is far from imminent. It just goes to show that simple, great inventions will endure the test of time.

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