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Robert William of Pneumatic Tyres

Robert William Thomson / Engineer & Inventor

  • Name  : Thompson
  • Born  : 1822
  • Died  : 1873
  • Category  : Engineers
  • Finest Moment : The first india-rubber pneumatic tyre (1845)

From his mother's improved mangle to the world's first india-rubber pneumatic tyre - he invented it.

Born in Stonehaven in 1822, the 11th of 12 children of a local woollen mill owner. Robert was primed to study for the ministry, but an innate inability to learn Latin made him refuse this path. Leaving school at 14 he lived with an uncle in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, being apprenticed to a merchant, but he returned to Scotland two years' later, and taught himself chemistry, electricity and astronomy, with assistance from a local weaver who had some knowledge of mathematics.

His inventive bent was allowed to blossom when his father provided him with a workshop, and by the time he was 17 he had re-designed and re-built his mother's mangle so that it could squeeze wet linen in both directions (think about it; it's like having a kettle which can be poured with either hand). Other original work at this time included a ribbon saw, and a first working model of an elliptic rotary steam engine.

He became an assistant to a civil engineer, and while working on the demolition of Dunbar Castle developed a method of firing explosive charges using an electric current. As this meant the end of lighting dodgy fuses by hand, deaths through 'hung' detonations fell dramatically throughout the world. He demonstrated this invention to Michael Faraday in London, in 1841.

Thomson went on to work for the contractors Sir William Cubitt and Robert Stephenson, later branching out on his own as a consultant in 1844. In 1845 he patented the world's first india-rubber pneumatic tyre, followed by a self-filling fountain pen in 1849. The tyre consisted of a hollow belt of india-rubber inflated with air, so that the wheels presented a cushion of air to the ground, rail or track on which they ran. This elastic belt of rubberised canvas was enclosed within a strong outer casing of leather which was bolted to the wheel.

The further development of these wheels was slowed by the inability to manufacture the necessary strong thin rubber for the inner tubes, and Thomson turned towards developing solid rubber tyres. Some 43 years later another Scot, John Boyd Dunlop, re-invented the pneumatic tyre as a bicycle tyre. Dunlop's patent however was rendered invalid as Thomson's patent preceded it.

In 1852 he accepted a post in Java, designing new equipment and improving other machines for the production of sugar. While out there he married Clara Hertz, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. They returned to Scotland in 1862, with Robert in ill-health, moving to Edinburgh. This did not stop his inventive outflow however, and in 1867 came the first successful mechanical road haulage vehicle, a steam traction engine. He also patented solid india-rubber tyres, allowing the lightweight engine to run over a wide variety of surfaces, with the minimum of damage to that surface. By 1870 they were being manufactured under licence in both Britain and the USA. 'Thomson Steamers' were exported around the world.

Thomson died at the early age of 50, at his home in Moray Place, Edinburgh, in 1873. He had never ceased to work, his last patent, for elastic belts, seats and cushions, being file after his death by his wife, Clara.

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