Robert William Thomson

1822 – 1873

Robert William Thomson

A serial inventor across many fields of engineering, including the pneumatic tyre, well before Dunlop

Engineering Achievements

R W Thomson was the Scottish inventor of the pneumatic tyre. The pneumatic tyre (or “aerial wheel” as he referred to it) would eventually transform road travel from a succession of bumps and jolts, to a quiet smooth ride by providing a cushion of air between the road and the vehicle itself. 

He was born in Stonehaven in 1822, leaving school at 14 to work for his uncle in Charleston, South Carolina. 

He returned to Scotland a few years later and was set up in a workshop and taught himself electricity and chemistry, and then was apprenticed to an Edinburgh civil engineer and devised a way of detonating explosives remotely using electricity, approved by Michael Faraday, and employed by William Cubitt on the Dover and South Eastern Railway. He was only 19, and was already saving many lives through his inventions.

At the age of 23, he patented his invention for an “Aerial Wheel” - the pneumatic tyre: A hollow tube of India rubber enclosed by a leather outer casing bolted to the wheels, demonstrated in Regent’s Park London, transforming the comfort of carriage users.

He was a serial inventor with a restless mind with 14 patents registered in his name, including in 1849, the self-filling pen, hydraulic dry docks, the first mobile steam crane, and in 1867 the first successful steam powered road traction vehicle, the “Thomson Steamer” exported across the world. 

John Boyd Dunlop may be popularly regarded as the inventor of the pneumatic tyre but there is a case that he only re-invented it 15 years after Thomson’s death.

His Life

  1. 1822 Year of birth, Stonehaven
  2. 1836 Moved to Charleston, United States, apprenticed to a merchant
  3. 1838 Returned to Edinburgh and taught himself chemistry, electricity, astronomy and mathematics
  4. 1839 At home designed and built a ribbon saw, designed and built a working model of an elliptic rotary steam engine
  5. 1839 Started an apprenticeship with Edinburgh civil engineering firm
  6. C1841 Worked as railway engineer, supervised blasting of chalk cliffs near Dover, set up railway consultancy business
  7. 1845 Patented pneumatic tyre
  8. 1847 Demonstrated pneumatic tyres in Regent's Park
  9. 1849 Invented fountain pen
  10. 1873 Year of death
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