A car tyre, the ring-shaped covering around the rim of the wheel, not only protects the rim, but also improves the performance of the car. The tyres provide the traction between the car and the road in addition to the cushioning effect they deliver by absorbing the shock. Modern tyres are pneumatic tyres that are made with materials such as natural rubber, synthetic rubber, wire and fabric, carbon black as well as other chemical compounds. A tyre consists of a body and a tread. Whereas the tread actually provides the traction, the body encases compressed air. Prior to developing rubber, wooden wheels fitted with metal bands so as to prevent wear and tear were used as tyres. The rubber tyres that were used in early days were not pneumatic tyres; they were solid rubber tyres. Metal tires are still being used on railcars and locomotives and solid rubber tyres are made use of in non-automotive applications like wheelbarrows, casters, lawnmowers, and carts.
The correct spelling of tyre is actually tire, derived from the French word tirer’ which means to pull’. In the early days, tire referred to thick wires or iron hoops that were bound to the wheels of carriages. The word tyre was made use of after the 1840s when the English started to shrink fit wheels of railcars with malleable iron. The tire was commonly spelled as tyre’ in the nineteenth century when the pneumatic tyres were introduced in the UK.
In the early days, tyres were heated in a forge, placed on wheels made of wood and then quenched so that the metal would contract to fit tightly on to the wheel. This was done by a skilled technician or worker who was referred to as wheelwright. The outer ring also served to hold the wheel segments together in addition to making it wear proof.
Meanwhile, explorers observed that Indians used rubber sheets for the purpose of waterproofing. By 1800s, Charles McIntosh started experimenting with latex obtained from a tree in the Amazon. The problem he faced was that it became brittle during the winter and sticky during the summer time. In 1839, Charles Goodyear found out that addition of sulphur to latex made rubber stronger as well as more elastic. The vulcanised rubber (sulphur mixed with latex) was made use of to provide the cushioning effect to cycle wheels.
The credit of making the first practical pneumatic tyre goes to John Boyd Dunlop, the inventor from Scotland. In 1887, he was working as veterinarian in Belfast. He wanted to make it more comfortable for his son to ride the bicycle and prevent the headaches that his son experienced when riding on rough terrains. Another Scotsman Robert Williamson Thomson had already invented the pneumatic tyre and had even patented it as early as 1846. Dunlop was granted patent in 1889 for his invention, but the patent was declared as invalid after two years.
In 1891, the Michelin brothers invented the detachable pneumatic tyre which consisted of a tube that was bolted to the rim. In 1895, Andrea Michelin tried to use the tyre on automobiles. He fitted a tyre filled with air designed by him to a Peugeot motor car. Unfortunately, he was not successful in his attempt. The first car with standard fittings of pneumatic tyres was sold in 1896 in France was Voiturette, the three-wheel tandem.
The Americans George F. Stillman and Alexander T. Brown obtained the U.S. patent in 1892 for a car tyre that was inflatable and could be mounted or detached easily to the wheel’s rim. Their tyres were manufactured by the Hartford Rubber Works in Connecticut. The pneumatic tyres that were produced during this time were covered with leather and held together by using rivets or laces. During the early 1900s, cotton cord canvas that was coated with rubber was used instead of leather.
The American John F. Palmer moved to England in 1895 and registered a company by name Palmer Tyre Company. He opened a tyre manufacturing facility at a factory by name India Rubber Company. He adapted the bicycle tyre that he had designed earlier and obtained patent for the same in the US and started making pneumatic tyres for cars that used web thread fabric. The B F Goodrich Company that was making bicycle tyres in the US according to Palmer’s 1892 patent started making car tyres with thread fabric in 1906.
The German company Continental AG started making pneumatic tyres for automobiles in 1898. They did not make use of the tread pattern for tyres. There are umpteen numbers of references to the use of inner tubes in tyres in the patent applications that were filed during the 1890s as well as in early 1900s. However, the credit of inventing the first practical tyre having an air filled inner tube goes to Philip Strauss, an American, who worked for the Hardman Tyre and Rubber Company.
He was instrumental in applying an invention of Alexander Strauss, his father, and producing a combination fabric-reinforced hardened rubber tire with an inner tube that was also made of rubber. The first successful automobile tyre was invented by Philip Strauss in 1911.
In 1915, the Detroit-based Palmer Tyre Company started making great strides by pioneering cord fabric and developing the cord tyre. The fabric they made use of was not woven. The cord strands were kept parallel to one another and then pressed into the rubber sheet. The tyres were cast using these sheets made of cord material. Each ply was separated by its own coating of rubber.
The design of tyres remained unchanged through the 1920s and 1930s till Michelin brought out the steel-belted tyres, referred to as radial tyres, in 1948. The radial tyres have a longer life because they have ply cords radiating at a 90 degree angle from the rim of the wheel. In addition, the tyre offered less rolling resistance which increased the vehicle’s mileage. However, the suspension system of cars had to be changed to accommodate these tyres. The radial tyre is considered to be the first breakthrough invention since that of the pneumatic tyre. The radial tyres revolutionised the transport industry to a great extent.
Hamish Jones is a history teacher from Perth, Australia.