John Boyd Dunlop

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Volume 16

John Boyd Dunlop testing out his own invention—a bicycle with pneumatic tyres.

John Boyd Dunlop testing out his own invention—a bicycle with pneumatic tyres.

Shortly after the Berlin conference, an event happened in Ulster that changed the international rubber market in ways no one foresaw and, quite literally, led to the reinvention of the wheel. In October 1887 a Scottish-born resident of Belfast, John Boyd Dunlop, with a small veterinary practice in Gloucester Street, took heed of his nine-year-old son’s complaint about how the hard cobbled streets made tricycling uncomfortable. Dunlop then set to work fastening an air-filled rubber tube to a disk of wood with a strip of linen. In February 1888 he tested a tricycle with all its wheels made in this way, and from there a new frame was constructed. After a successful demonstration before a group of Belfast businessmen, application for a patent for the rubber tyre was lodged and granted in December 1888. The following May, a bicycle fitted with the wheels won a race and impressed one of the competitors, Harvey du Cros, so much that he sought out Dunlop and set up a company with him in Dublin, called the Pneumatic Tyre and Booth’s Cycle Agency.
John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic rubber tyre inaugurated a new age of transport and a massive demand for latex by manufacturers of cars and bicycles. Vast areas of the tropics were now opened up in the name of ‘civilisation’. In the countries bordering the Amazon—Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador—thousands migrated upriver into the forested interiors in the hope of hacking out fortunes. The conflicts that ensued remain largely unrecorded and beyond the radar of history. The story of rubber remembered in the West is largely sanitised of the desperate level of human suffering and the devastating environmental impact. Instead it is recorded in terms of statistics, fluctuating market prices and economic booms and busts. Where stories are told they speak of immeasurable fortunes controlled by ruthless individuals. The prosperity and decadence of jungle-girt Manaos is symbolised by its opera house and legends about rubber barons who sent their shirts to be laundered in Paris.


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