If necessity is the mother if invention, then John Boyd Dunlop’s son, John Jr, is the mother of the pneumatic tire.
John Jr rode his tricycle on the cobbled streets of Belfast, Ireland, where his dad practiced as a veterinary surgeon. When Junior complained about the harsh ride of the solid rubber tires on his trike, Dunlop Sr experimented with an old garden hose. He cut it to size, mounted it to Junior’s trike, and inflated it with air.
Alas, Dunlop’s 1888 patent was invalidated because of prior art. Scotsman Robert William Thomson had already invented the pneumatic tire and was granted a patent in 1846. Thomson’s tire was an elastic belt of rubberised canvas enclosed within a strong outer casing of leather which was bolted to the wheel, and Thompson’s tire — which came 40 years before the invention of the safety bicycle — was marketed for use with horse-drawn carriages.
Dunlop is commonly acknowledged as the inventor because his pneumatic tire came at the right time, arriving at a crucial time in the development of road transportation. His Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company helped to popularize bicycles for the 1890s bike craze.
This 1880 photo from LIFE’s photo archive shows John Dunlop Jr comfortably astride a safety bicycle equipped with Dunlop Pneumatic Tyres.
Thank you, John Jr, for your crucial role by whining to your dad about your trike’s bumpy ride!