Wheels in history
It is impossible to imagine modern vehicles without the use of quiet, durable pneumatic tyres protecting the wheels. The earliest wheeled vehicles, however, developed over 5000 years ago, used wooden wheels to assist in the movement of goods and people in carts and chariots. The wheel was simply a circular piece of wood with a hole in the middle for the axle (also made of wood. As you can imagine (especially on the rough cart tracks that were the only form of “road” at that time), these wheels were very prone to breaking, especially as there was no cushion between the wheel and the axle, nor between the wheel and the surface over which it travelled.
The next development in wheeled transport was the use of wooden spokes in the wheels, as these not only made the wheel stronger, but also lighter and able to support heavier loads. The early wooden wheels were made a little more durable through the use of iron cladding around the rim, which protected the wheel to some extent. The noise of these vehicles, which were used on carts and carriages right up until the nineteenth century, must have been incredible – far exceeding the noise of most modern motorised vehicles. They were also pretty inefficient for moving heavy weights and it was quite common for passengers of stagecoaches to have to get out of the coach and walk up hills, to help the horses pull the vehicle up hills.
The modern car tyre
Unbelievably, it was not until the nineteenth century that this state of affairs changed. There seem to have been two main influences that evolved into the modern pneumatic tyres now used on cars, lorries, bicycles and motorbikes, available online from companies such as Avatyre.
Probably the best known story is that of John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinary surgeon who lived in Belfast. His son had a bicycle which he used to ride to school, but found the journey over Belfast’s cobbled streets very uncomfortable. His father experimented with different alternatives and eventually came up with the concept of a rubber tyre which was inflated to cushion riding over a bumpy surface. It became obvious that not only was this tyre quieter and more comfortable, but it was also much faster.
With the success of Dunlop’s son, Johnny, in winning cycle races, the father persuaded a well-known cycling champion, Willie Hume to use his pneumatic tyres in a race in 1889. After a convincing victory, there was a surge in demand for the new tyres and the name of Dunlop has been associated with quality tyres ever since.
A slightly less well-known story is also set in the nineteenth century, but around 40 years earlier. A Scot, Robert Thomson, was a keen inventor, encouraged by his father who set him up with a workshop in London. Among other inventions, Thomson experimented with “aerial wheels”, which he patented in 1845, before bicycles had been developed. Thomson’s aerial wheels were designed for horse drawn carts and carriages and he arranged for an experiment in Regent’s Park attended by many journalists.
He fitted his new tyres to a carriage, which proceeded to be pulled through the park side by side with a carriage with conventional wheels. There was considerable scepticism amongst the journalists, who thought the soft tyres would not move as easily, but the result was clear; the aerial tyres were quiet, fast and far more efficient than those on the other carriage.
Unfortunately, because of the high price of rubber at that time, the new tyres did not take off and Thomson didn’t make his fortune from his invention, amazing though it may seem now, when we have a vast range of car tyres available to us.