18 March 2015

Another Celt Blazes A New Path For Cycling--And Everyone

Now, on the day after St. Patrick's Day, I'm going to talk about another Celtic person in the world of cycling.

Unlike Sean Kelly, this person was from Scotland but lived in Ulster (a.k.a. Northern Ireland).  Another difference is that this person I'm about to mention never won any Tour jerseys or classics.  In fact, as far as I know, he never raced at all.  

But we should all be grateful to this person, who invented something that not only revolutionized (in every sense of the word) cycling, but the whole world. 

That last clue may have tipped you off.  Yes, this person's invention had to do with the wheel.  No, he didn't invent the wheel:  That came a few millenia earlier.  But what he did made the wheel--and the bicycle--versatile in ways no one could have previously imagined.

What's just as interesting is that this person not only was not a racer, he wasn't an engineer or a technical person.  In fact, he was a veterinary surgeon at the time he invented the thing I'm going to mention.

Early Pneumatic Bicycle Tire
Early pneumatic tire.  From Dave's Vintage Bicycles

That thing was...the pneumatic tire.  Without it, bicycles are no faster than horse-drawn carriages--and wouldn't be able to traverse some of the terrain our bovine friends have trod for milennia. Ditto for automobiles:  They would have been all but useless, especially given the road conditions of around the time the gasoline-powered engine was invented.  And aircraft, at least as we know them, could not take off or land.

image of John Boyd Dunlop
John Boyd Dunlop

 The man in question is John Boyd Dunlop.  As the story goes, his young son was prescribed cycling as a cure for a heavy cold.  Given the relative cost of bikes at that time, it took a pretty fair amount of audacity to complain that his tricycle--with hard rubber tires on iron wheels-- was uncomfortable.

No one knows exactly how Dunlop pere came up with the idea of bonding canvas together with liquid rubber to make an inflatable tube.  But he did and in 1888 he patented the idea--and, in the process used the word "pneumatic" for the first time.  

A local firm, W. Edlin and company, agreed to make casings for the new tubes and the following year, a well-known cyclist, Willie Hume, used the new tires to win a race at Cherryvale.  A paper manufacturer who was one of the spectators would buy Dunlop's patents a few years later.  By that time, he had moved to Dublin, where he manufactured bicycle frames in collaboration with a local firm, Bowden and Gillies.


  1. Sorry but... John Boyd Dunlop was from Ayrshire, which is in Scotland.

  2. Rebecca--Oh, dear. I'm mixing up my Celts. Not good. I'll fix the mistake.