Robert William Thomson, lived from 26 July 1822 to 8 March 1873. He was a prolific inventor best remembered for his invention of the pneumatic tyre. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Robert William Thomson was born in Stonehaven, the eleventh of twelve children of the owner of a woollen mill. He left school at the age of 14 and went to live with an uncle, who was a merchant in Charleston, USA. He returned two years later and started to exploit his natural talent for engineering, helped by a weaver in his father's mill. This led to an engineering apprenticeship in Aberdeen, followed by jobs as a civil engineer in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was while he was working in Edinburgh that he invented a means of detonating explosives using electricity, something that would transform civil engineering and mining worldwide.
Thomson next turned his attention to railway engineering, working with the South Eastern Railway before establishing himself as a consultant, becoming the promoter of the Eastern Counties Railway. At the age of 23, Thomson came up with the idea of pneumatic tyres comprising a hollow belt of India-rubber inflated with air and surrounded by a tyre of leather. Thomson was granted a patent for his pneumatic tyres in France in 1846 and in the USA in 1847. He called his new invention "Aerial Wheels", and a number were demonstrated in London on horse drawn carriages. However, producing rubber that was thin enough for the belt proved difficult and expensive. Thomson turned away from pneumatic tyres and back towards solid rubber tyres, which offered some of the benefits and were much easier and cheaper to make. By 1888, rubber technology had moved on enough for John Boyd Dunlop to patented a pneumatic bicycle tyre. Dunlop's patent was successfully challenged by Thomson, but it was Dunlop who went on to popularise pneumatic tyres and mass produce them.
At the 1851 Great Exhibition, Thomson showed off his self-filling fountain pen and an invalid chair with solid rubber tyres, both significant improvements over what had gone before. He then spent ten years in Java, bringing considerable efficiencies to the sugar cane industry and inventing a portable steam powered crane. Ill health forced him to return to Scotland in 1862. Despite often being confined to bed, he went on to make many of his most far reaching innovations. By 1867 he ran a company producing "road steamers", self propelled road going steam engines. He made a series of significant improvements to their design and, most importantly, wrapped their metal wheels - which often damaged roads or simply restricted the mobility of the vehicles - with solid vulcanised rubber tyres. The popularity of road steamers for pulling goods like coal dramatically increased as a result, and by the end of the 1860s an omnibus service opened, carrying passengers between Edinburgh and Leith and using vehicles (and tyres) designed and built by Thomson.
Robert William Thomson died in Edinburgh in 1873 at the age of just 50. After his death, his wife Clara submitted his final patent application, for elastic belts, seats and cushions. His list of inventions, innovations and improvements to existing technology is long and wide ranging.