A Simple Idea that Changed the World

Born on a farm in Dreghorn, North Ayrshire, John Boyd Dunlop had a simple idea that changed the world.

Trained as a veterinary surgeon at the Dick Vet University of Edinburgh, John Boyd had set up a successful practice with his brother James Dunlop in Downpatrick but by the mid 1880’s he had moved on and now had one of the largest practices in Belfast at 38-42 May Street.

He was wed in 1871 to Margaret Stevenson and they had a son and daughter. John Boyd Dunlop was often described as a shy and gentle mannered man. Whilst watching his son riding his tricycle one day, John noticed how uncomfortable he was looking as he drove over the rough terrain.

John Boyd Dunlop

To alleviate his son of this uncomfortableness he decided to cover the wheels with sheets of rubber, glued together over the wheels, then inflate them using an old football pump. He tested his product by rolling his wheel and his sons metal wheel across the yard. The metal wheel soon stopped rolling whilst the new rubberised wheel carried on for some distance until it reached a gate post and rebounded.

John realised that this idea worked amazingly well, so much so that in December 1888 he was granted a patent for his pneumatic tyres.

With the success of his invention at the forefront of his mind John turned his attentions to making bigger versions for bicycles. As he practised his invention at the Cherryvale sports ground, South Belfast he was able to work out any quirks and niggles until he produced a wheel suitable for a cycle race.

In 1889 Willie Hume the captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club became the first member of the public to purchase a bicycle with pneumatic tyres. John suggested he use his new bicycle for a race and agreeing to try it Willie won all four cycling events at the Queens College Sports at Belfast. Following on from this success he entered another cycling event in Liverpool and won every race again bar one.

One of the losing competitors on the day was Henry Du Cros, a son of the president of the Irish Cyclists Association.

Harvey Du Cros

An astute businessman Le Cros saw the potential in the pneumatic tyre and soon built a personal association with John Boyd Dunlop.

In 1889 the Pneumatic Tyre and Booth’s Cycle Agency Co. Ltd was formed. John Boyd Dunlop could see no prosperous future in the venture and handing over the rights to his invention was happy to take a 20% stake in the company.

By the late 1880’s demand for the pneumatic wheeled bicycles was out stripping supply, but there was a big blow for John Boyd Dunlop. His patent was withdrawn.

It had been discovered that another gentleman Robert William Thomson had patented the idea in France in 1846 and the US in 1847.

Robert William Thomson

Having worked through the difficulties of the removed patent. Dunlop and du Cros established factories overseas and divisions in Europe and North America, four of du Cros six sons were deployed around the globe to take care of the newly formed business interests and partnerships were formed with established firms such as Clement Cycles in France and Adler in Germany.

In 1893 the youngest of du Cros son’s Harvey du Cros junior turned 21 and was able to sign the deeds on a new business in the USA.

In 1895 J B Dunlop sold most of his interest and left the business.

In 1896 Du Cros sold the business for £3 million pounds to Ernest Terah Hooley who promptly sold it on as the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company for £5 million pounds.

In 1896 and with 3 million plus burning a hole in his pocket du Cros formed a new company Rubber Tyre Manufacturing and acquired Byrne Bros India Rubber.

Dunlop PneumaticTyre Company had started buying up rubber mills and began to process its own rubber.

From the 1900’s Dunlop started to diversify. The company produced its first motor car tyre in 1900 and in 1906 they had built a car wheel manufacturing plant.

In 1910 Dunlop developed its first aeroplane tyre and the golf ball!

Du Cros died in 1918 and his son Arthur du Cros was made managing director and vice chairman of the now amalgamated Dunlop Rubber company.

In 1916 the construction of Fort Dunlop had begun. The site was built across 400 acres and at its height employed around 10,000 people.

Dunlop Factory, Birmingham

By 1917 the company owned around 60,000 acres of rubber plantation and by 1918 was the fourteenth largest manufacturing company in Great Britain.

After nearly losing the company due to installing a rouge financier James White in 1921 a new chairman was appointed Sir Eric Geddes. Geddes soon set about diversifying the company:

In 1924 the company started manufacturing tennis balls

In 1925 the company acquired F A Davis who had vast expertise in manufacturing tennis rackets

In 1926 Dunlop paid 2.5 million to acquire Charles Mackintosh and the Dunlop name was applied to footwear and clothing.

By 1928 only 72 percent of turnover was coming from tyres compared to 90% in 1920.

By the late 1920’s Dunlop had manufacturing subsidiaries in all corners of the world, Japan, Canada, America, France and Germany.

In 1929 Dunlop had patented latex foam.

By 1939 Dunlop was one of the largest British multinational companies and had become a household name.

Through all the years of Geddes Dunlop expanded its product portfolio but by the late 1960’s the company was slipping out of its position, developing a cheaper radial tyre rather than the more expensive durable steel-belted tyres and began to lose its market share to Michelin.

In 1968, a year after the company had changed its name from the Dunlop Rubber Company Ltd to Dunlop Ltd Sir Reay Geddes, Sir Eric Geddes’s son became chairman.

The first acquisition Sir Reay made was to acquire George Angus Ltd, a world leader in the supply of fire hoses and fire fighting equipment. The company had operating profits of £31.8 million and a net profit of £11.8 million that year.

By 1970 the company had 102,000 employees worldwide and were the 3rd largest tyre manufacturer.

In 1978 the company had large financial debts brought on by a decline in Britain’s motoring industry, the oil crisis of 1973, and a disastrous deal with Pirelli Tyres, Sir Reay Geddes stepped down.

Sir Campbell Fraser took over and with in the next 3 years he had spent 102 million dollars modernising its European tyre business. The workforce British workforce was slashed from 13,000 to 7,000 and the rubber plantations were sold off.

By 2006 Dunlop had been dismantled and the company was no longer the great company it had once been.

Once the company had been sold of to various other companies around the world certain items were still made carrying the Dunlop name, such as the tyres which was bought by Goodyear and the sports division was bought by Sports Direct.

As for the wellingtons, that we are proud stockists of, well they are owned by Hevea, a Dutch company who bought the Dunlop Protective Footwear division in 1996.

Dunlop short wellie

A simple idea had not only once changed the world but once ruled it.

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