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29 October 2014
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Robert Thomson's House
Robert Thomson's House
As you stand in Market Square you will see a plaque standing on an unprepossessing building on the south side of the square. Although it may not look much, it was once home to the most remarkable man to hail from Stonehaven, and one of the great unsung heroes of Scotland.

The name of Robert William Thomson may not be well-known even in his native land, but his gift for invention and the utterly prolific nature of his patenting rank him as one of the greatest of Scottish inventors. From steam tractors to self-filling fountain pens, his output was breathtaking and eclectic, but he is most celebrated as being the first inventor of pneumatic tyres. Fifty years before John Boyd Dunlop is credited with its invention, Thomson had submitted a patent for the very same article.

Thomson led a no less remarkable life than his inventions would suggest. He was born in the house in Stonehaven's Market Square on June 29th 1822, the eleventh of twelve children of the owner of the Carron Wool Mill. At the age of 14 a family dispute erupted - his parents wished Robert to study for the ministry, but the wilful youngster refused, and he left to live with an uncle in Charleston in the USA.

His stay in the New World was brief however, and two years later Thomson had returned to Stonehaven, where, with the help of a local weaver well versed in maths, he educated himself in chemistry and astronomy and acquired knowledge of electricity. His gift for invention was soon becoming apparent, and, a year after his return, at the tender age of 17, he had redesigned his mother's mangle, allowing wet washing to be passed through either end, built and designed a ribbon saw, and designed and built a prototype of a rotary steam engine which he was to continue working on for the rest of his life.

Robert Thomson's House
Robert Thomson's House

After serving his apprenticeship with an engineering firm in Aberdeen and Dundee, Thomson ended up working in Edinburgh, where he was involved in the building of the Dean Bridge. While at this firm he came up with a method of detonating explosive charges using electricity, a technique which was to save countless lives in the mining industry. Thomson moved into the rapidly expanding field of railway line construction, setting up his own business as a railway consultant.

Thomson was only 23 when he made the patent which was to leave his mark on the world. The Pneumatic tyre - or "aerial wheel" as Thomson called it - was to transform road travel from an uncomfortable succession of bumps and jolts to a silent comfortable ride, and Thomson registered his patent on 10th December 1845. However, despite the undoubted advantages of the tyre, Thomson's invention and the man himself were to be largely forgotten, as, in 1845, not only were there no motor cars on the roads, there weren't even any bicycles to make use of his tyres, and with rubber prohibitively expensive (it cost £42 to fit one in 1847) lack of demand reduced pneumatic tyres to the level of a curiosity.

Thomson, however, did not let this setback depress him and he carried on inventing, devising, amongst other things: the first dry dock, improvements for machinery involved in sugar refining and the first travelling donkey-engined crane; as well as developments in such diverse areas as steam boilers and elastic beds. Thomson also patented steam tractors and steam buses, both of which went into production, and which used pneumatic tyres.

Robert William Thomson spent many years living in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) where he met his wife, Clara. The couple returned to Scotland in 1862, settling in Edinburgh, where he died on 8th March 1873. Clara submitted his final patent, for elastic belts, later that year.


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