History of a Tire

Today let’s talk about the Celts, two Scots, and a stove-related accident.

You’re probably thinking, “What do these things have to do with tires?”

The truth is, these three things were vital to the development of the modern tire. Without them, we might all still be riding horses today.

You’ve heard of chariots, right? Two-wheeled, horse driven, used by the Romans and Egyptians? Well, around 800 BC the Celts came and one-upped everyone else’s chariots. You see, there weren’t nice paved roads in ancient time, especially when it came to warfare. Without the modern conveniences of shock absorbers and pneumatic tires, people had to rely on wooden wheels that tended to break after prolonged use. The Celts, however, came up with a new idea: use a circular band of iron around the wooden wheels. Voil√†, the tire was born.

As you can imagine, iron tires did not make for a very comfortable ride. Things stayed quite bumpy for a very long time. Let’s jump more than 2,000 years into the future, all the way to 1845. A Scottish man by the name of Robert William Thomson went to both France and America to patent the first pneumatic tire. Using a combination of soft rubber belts and strong leather casing, this was an invention far ahead of its time. So far ahead, in fact, that it never caught on due to lack of demand.

However, as luck would have it, another Scot would have the same stroke of genius, albeit about 40 years later. In 1887 John Boyd Dunlop knew he was onto something big when he fitted his son’s tricycle with thin rubber sheets and inflated them. This made it ride quieter and far smoother.

There’s one big reason why Dunlop’s tires took off while Thomson’s didn’t: publicity. Willie Hume, the captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club, owned the first publicly available bicycle with pneumatic tires. In 1889 Hume introduced his revolutionary bicycle to England in the best way possible: winning all but one event at a Liverpool cycling meet. Those victories proved that the pneumatic tire was here to stay.

Now, don’t think that the Scots get to take all the credit for the development of the modern tire. Dunlop wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything if it weren’t for an American by the name of Charles Goodyear. In the early 1830s he was swept up in the rubber craze that bankrupted countless people. Unlike the rest of them, Goodyear never gave up. He knew that making a usable, weatherproof rubber was going to change the world.

During the winter of 1839, Goodyear accidentally charred some of his sulfur-treated rubber when it fell on a stove. Instead of melting, like untreated rubber usually does, it charred and hardened. This new substance could be used without worry of melting during the summer or freezing during the winter. We now call this vulcanized rubber. Even though Charles Goodyear died with $200,000 in debt, his discovery set the stage for inventors like Dunlop.

There you have it, the story of the tire. Next time you get into your car, give hearty thanks to the men whose works ensures that you get home on the smoothest of rides. 


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