Famous and not so famous Brits – John Boyd Dunlop
John Boyd Dunlop, inventor of the pneumatic tyre
Anyone growing up in Britain between the 1900s and the 1980s would probably have used some items manufactured by the Dunlop Rubber Company – tennis balls and rackets, trainers, sports gear, Dunlopillo pillows and mattresses made of latex foam, hoses, and the product for which Dunlop is best known – tyres, for bicycles, cars and aircraft.
The history of the Dunlop brand name reads like a microcosm of the fate of British manufacturing in the twentieth century, starting from small beginnings, growing to multinational status and becoming a household name in the years between the two world wars, only to go into a gradual decline after 1945, eventually leading to takeovers by foreign owners. The original Dunlop ceased to exist in 1985, but products bearing the name Dunlop are still manufactured in different parts of the world, for a variety of companies. But the Dunlop story began with the work of one man – the inventor John Boyd Dunlop (1840-1921). John Boyd Dunlop was born in the west of Scotland, in Dreghorn, Ayrshire. He attended Edinburgh University and qualified as a veterinary surgeon. He worked as a vet in Scotland for ten years before moving to Northern Ireland, establishing veterinary practices in Downpatrick and Belfast. This was the period when bicycles were known, for good reason, as “boneshakers”; roads were rough and bumpy and bike journeys were highly uncomfortable, even in cities. In fact, Dunlop was inspired to invent the pneumatic tyre by seeing his young son struggle to ride his tricycle on Belfast’s cobbled streets. Dunlop replaced the solid rubber tyres with a “practical pneumatic tyre”, incorporating a tube inflated with a football pump. The resulting cushion of air between the wheel and the road surface led to a much smoother ride and Dunlop successfully adapted his discovery for full-size bicycles.
Dunlop patented his invention in 1888 and production began soon afterwards, with Dunlop factories opening in both Ireland (Dublin and Belfast) and England (Birmingham and Coventry). Success was immediate, even if another inventor (Robert William Thomson) came forward to contest the originality of Dunlop’s patent, claiming that he had come up with a similar system in 1847. Dunlop’s patent was declared invalid, but the Dunlop tyres proved their worth in sporting events before being widely adapted in commercial cycle manufacturing. Like many other inventors, he did not grow rich from his discoveries, even if the pneumatic tyre revolutionised road transport in the ensuing years. He sold the company in 1986 and transferred the patent (to William Harvey Du Cros). In return, Dunlop received 1500 shares in the new company and retired to Dublin, where he lived for the rest of his life. By 1912, the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company was a “multinational” and remained one of the biggest names in British manufacturing until the 1970s. Interestingly, John Boyd Dunlop is remembered on both sides of the Irish Channel. The website http://www.virtualscotland.co.uk/scotland_articles/famous-scots/dunlop.htm lists him as a “Famous Scot”, while he was also commemorated on a £10 note issued by the Northern Bank, a banknote was in circulation in Northern Ireland and was legal tender in the rest of the UK, even if it was seldom seen there (English shops are sometimes reluctant to accept Scottish or Northern Irish banknotes).
NOTE: The brand name Dunlop is more familiar to most Britons than the story of the company’s founder, to be found on Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Boyd_Dunlop
The Dunlop company history timeline: http://www.dunlop.eu/dunlop_uk/about-us/our-history/motorsport/1880/