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John Boyd Dunlop lived from 5 February 1840 to 23 October 1921. He popularised the pneumatic inflatable rubber tyre and is chiefly remembered for founding the company that bears his name, Dunlop Tyres. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Dunlop was born on a farm at Dreghorn in Ayrshire, on what is now the eastern outskirts of the town of Irvine. He went on to study veterinary science at the Royal School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, or the "Dick Vet" after its founder, William Dick. This is now the veterinary school of the University of Edinburgh. Dunlop went on to practice as a vet in Edinburgh, before moving to Belfast to take up a post there in 1867.
John Boyd Dunlop's veterinary work involved a considerable amount of travelling over roads that were often very rough, something made still more uncomfortable by the fact that wheels on carriages had rims of iron or wood. But it was the cobbled streets of Belfast, and his son's difficulty learning to ride a tricycle with solid rubber tyres, that caused inspiration to strike in 1887. Dunlop's brainwave was to produce a rubber tyre that could be inflated with air - a pneumatic tyre - which absorbed shocks transmitted from the road much more effectively than solid tyres.
In 1888 Dunlop patented the idea, and in 1889, Dunlop Tyres began production of pneumatic tyres at a factory in Dublin. In 1890, Dunlop's patent was challenged by Robert William Thomson, a Scottish inventor who had patented the idea of a pneumatic tyre in France in 1846 and in the USA in 1847. However, Thompson's approach to producing tyres had been rather different (and rather more expensive), and Dunlop was able to continue to manufacture tyres of his own design. In 1891 Dunlop Tyres began production from its vast factory known as Fort Dunlop at Erdington near Birmingham.
In 1896, at the age of 56, Dunlop transferred control of the patent and the company to William Harvey Du Cros. In return he was given 1500 shares in the new company, which still bore his name, and he retired to Dublin. Within a decade Dunlop Tyres had expanded dramatically into a multi-national company as demand for tyres exploded with the advent of the internal combustion engine.
John Boyd Dunlop died in Dublin on 23 October 1921. He had done reasonably well out of the sale of his company: but nothing like as well as he would have done if he had retained control of his patent. And, although he was not the inventor of the pneumatic tyre, just about everyone on earth has heard his name and believes he did.
In 1939 Dunlop Tyres branched out into the production of sports equipment, and in the 1970s it pioneered the development of "failsafe" tyres that could withstand a blowout without causing an accident. Today many of the company's core activities have been sold off to others, though it retains an operation in part of the old Fort Dunlop factory that each year produces around 300,000 specialised vintage, motorcycle and touring car tyres.