John Dunlop, Charles Goodyear and the History of Tires

John Boyd Dunlop with the first bicycle to have pneumatic tires. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The rubber pneumatic tires seen on millions of cars across the world are the result of multiple inventors working across several decades. And those inventors have names that should be recognizable to anyone who's ever bought tires for their car: Michelin, Goodyear, Dunlop.

Of these, none had so great an impact on the invention of the tire than John Dunlop and Charles Goodyear. 

Charles Goodyear and the Invention of Vulcanized Rubber

None of it would have been possible without Charles Goodyear, who in 1844 -- more than 50 years before the first rubber tires would appear on cars -- patented a process known as vulcanization.

This process involved heating and removing the sulphur from rubber, thus making the rubber water-proof and winter-proof and allowing it to retain its elasticity. While Goodyear's claim to have invented vulcanization was challenged, he prevailed in court and is today remembered as the sole inventor of vulcanized rubber.

And that became hugely important once people realized it would be perfect for making tires.

John Dunlop and the Pneumatic Tire

Robert William Thomson (1822 - 1873) invented the actual first vulcanized rubber pneumatic tire. Thomson patented his pneumatic tire in 1845, and his invention worked well, but it was too costly to catch on.

That changed with John Boyd Dunlop (1840-1921), a Scottish veterinarian and the recognized inventor of the first practical pneumatic (inflatable) tire. His patent, granted in 1888, wasn't for automobile tires, however: it was intended for use on bicycles (see picture).

Later Developments

  • In 1895, André Michelin and his brother Edouard, who had previously patented a removable bike tire, were the first to use pneumatic tires on an automobile.
  • In 1911, Philip Strauss invented the first successful tire, which was a combination tire and air filled inner tube. Strauss' company the Hardman Tire & Rubber Company marketed the tires. 
  • In 1903, P.W. Litchfield of the Goodyear Tire Company patented the first tubeless tire, however, it was never commercially exploited until the 1954 Packard. 
  • In 1904, mountable rims were introduced that allowed drivers to fix their own flats. In 1908, Frank Seiberling invented grooved tires with improved road traction. 
  • In 1910, B.F. Goodrich Company invented longer life tires by adding carbon to the rubber. 
  • Goodrich also invented the first synthetic rubber tires in 1937 made of a patented substance called Chemigum.