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.
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|
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.
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.