THE long list of great Scottish inventors still features John Boyd Dunlop (1840-1921) as the man who designed the tyre. Except he didn’t.
Undoubtedly, the man who invented the pneumatic tire was the Scotsman Robert William Thomson (1822-1873) who had international patents for his “air wheels” four decades before Dunlop tried to patent his development.
A reader reproached me for having missed the bicentenary of the birth of Thomson but I can only plead that I was on vacation at the time. Instead, this week sees the 200th anniversary of his baptism which took place on July 26, 1822, a month after he was born on June 29.
I suspect 99% of Scots were unaware of the bicentenary, despite the valiant work of the RW Thomson Memorial Fellowship, which is dedicated to promoting this extraordinary inventor.
READ MORE: Debauchery, intrigue and murder mystery in the final years of Mary, Queen of Scots
Thomson was born in Stonehaven, the son of a local mill owner and the 11th of 12 children in all. Locally educated, it seems he was destined to become a minister, but his inability to master Latin paid for it. Instead, when he was 14, his parents sent Thomson to the United States, where he lived for two years with his uncle in Charleston, South Carolina.
He was supposed to learn the trade of a merchant, but after two years he returned to Scotland and began to learn astronomy and chemistry, and also studied the production and use of electricity. His father provided a workshop in which Thomson began his life of invention.
His first practical invention was a boon to his mother – he devised a mangle that allowed wet clothes to pass through rollers in both directions, thus halving the amount of mangle use.
By the age of 17 he had already invented a form of bandsaw and had begun work on a rotary steam engine to which he would later return. It was clear that he was destined to be an engineer and inventor, and so Thomson received an engineering apprenticeship in Aberdeen, Dundee and Glasgow before joining a firm in Edinburgh.
It was there, barely out of adolescence, that Thomson created his first major invention, one that would save many lives. He devised a method of igniting explosives using electricity, and it would quickly become the standard method for use in coal mines, ending the dangerous days of tactile paper lighting.
Thomson moved to London where he researched the greatest scientist of the day, Michael Faraday (below). He was impressed with Thomson’s intellect and commitment and recommended the young Scotsman to the South Eastern Railway Company where engineers Sir William Cubitt and Robert Stephenson – sons of railroad pioneer George Stephenson – took him under their wings, its first major task being blasting. new roads around Dover. This was successfully accomplished with no loss of life due to its electrical fuse system.
At just 22, Thomson went into business as a consultant for railroads that were growing fast – too fast, as panic set in among investors, and even though the routes he had dreamed up for the counties in the east of England were later adopted. with some still in use today, Thomson decided to move on.
He was intrigued by the possible uses of rubber in industry and in 1844 he began work on his greatest invention – the pneumatic tire. Thomson’s brilliant idea was to have a thin rubber tube filled with air inside the already existing rubber tires that were for limited use.
In December 1845, he obtained patent No. 10990 for what he called his “air wheels”, and other patents followed in France and the United States over the next two years. The problem was that Thomson was way ahead of its time – rubber was very expensive, not particularly reliable, and there were no cars and few bikes. Nevertheless, his invention caused a sensation in 1847 when Thomson fitted his aerial wheels to horse-drawn carriages and held a race at Regent’s Park against cars without his tires – Thomson’s cars were much faster and more comfortable than the others and a set of its wheels would have lasted. for 1200 miles.
(It wasn’t until the 1880s that John Boyd Dunlop, then a veterinarian in Ireland, fitted an air-filled tube inside the hard rubber tires of a children’s bicycle. Within weeks, his tires were mounted on the bike of a champion cyclist, and Dunlop was on his way to fame and fortune. He applied for a patent but was told that Thomson had beaten him to it by 43 years.)
His former mentor, Sir William Cubitt, gave Thomson a boost when he incorporated some of Thomson’s work into his design for the Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Thomson was then hired to work in Java where inventions continued to flow from 1852. He designed machines that improved sugar production, designed a rotary steam engine – as he had begun to do in the adolescence – and the world’s first mobile steam crane, as well as a hydraulic dry dock.
He also found a wife, Clara Hertz, the daughter of a local diamond merchant, and they will have two children. But Thomson’s health was damaged by the Java climate, and after 10 years he returned to Scotland, settling in business and settling in Moray Place in Edinburgh.
Convinced that rubber tires were the future, Thomson added them and a steam engine to a car and thus designed the world’s first practical road-going steam traction engine in 1867. Then he invented the ” Thomson’s Steamers”, road engines which included a vehicle carrying passengers between Edinburgh and Leith.
Steamers were exported to India and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and made Thomson a small fortune. Yet he was never able to enjoy a wealthy old age as Thomson died aged 50 on March 8, 1873.
Even after his death, Thomson’s inventiveness continued as his wife Clara later patented his cushion and elastic waistband designs.