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Robert William Thomson

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Robert William Thomson (1822-1873) was the Scottish inventor of the pneumatic tyre. See Tyre Patents

1822 Born in Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, Robert was the eleventh of twelve children of a local woollen mill owner. His family wished him to study for the ministry but Robert refused, one reason being his inability to master Latin.

He left school at the age of 14 and went to live with an uncle in Charleston, USA, where he was apprenticed to a merchant.

Two years later he returned home and taught himself chemistry, electricity and astronomy with the help of a local weaver who had a knowledge of mathematics.

Robert's father gave him a workshop and by the time he was 17 years old he had rebuilt his mother's mangle so that wet linen could be passed through the rollers in either direction, had successfully designed and built a ribbon saw, and had completed the first working model of his elliptic rotary steam engine which he was to perfect in later life.

He served an engineering apprenticeship in Aberdeen and Dundee before joining a civil engineering company in Glasgow. He then went to work for an Edinburgh firm of civil engineers where he devised a new method of detonating explosive charges by the use of electricity, thus greatly reducing the loss of lives in mines throughout the world.

Thomson next worked as a railway engineer and supervised the blasting of chalk cliffs near Dover for the South Eastern Railway. He set up his own railway consultancy business and proposed the line for the Eastern Counties Railway which was accepted by parliament and eventually developed.

1845 Thomson patented the pneumatic tyre.

1846 He was granted a patent in France in 1846 and in the USA in 1847. His tyre consisted of a hollow belt of India-rubber inflated with air so that the wheels presented "a cushion of air to the ground, rail or track on which they run". This elastic belt of rubberised canvas was enclosed within a strong outer casing of leather which was bolted to the wheel.

1847 Thomson's "Aerial Wheels" were demonstrated in London's Regent Park in March 1847 and were fitted to several horse-drawn carriages, greatly improving the comfort of travel and reducing noise. One set ran for 1,200 miles without sign of deterioration.

1847 Mentioned as Robert William Thomson, 18 Adam Street, Adelphi. Civil engineer.[1]

For many years Thomson was frustrated by the lack of thin rubber and he turned to the development of his solid rubber tyres. It was not until 43 years later that the pneumatic tyre returned, when it was developed as a bicycle tyre by John Boyd Dunlop. Dunlop was granted a patent in 1888 but two years later was officially informed that it was invalid as Thomson's patent preceded it.

1851 At the Great Exhibition Thomson demonstrated his self-filling fountain pen, and an invalid chair with solid rubber tyres.

1852 The following year he accepted a post in Java, where he designed new machinery for the production of sugar, thus greatly increasing profitability. During this time he invented the first portable steam crane but did not bother to patent it.

1862 Williams returned to Scotland and despite ill health, which latterly confined him to a couch, Thomson's genius was undiminished and some of his most significant work was done during the following ten years.

In 1867 he patented solid India-rubber tyres for his road steamers. The Scotsman described this application of vulcanised India-rubber to the wheels of road steamers as "the greatest step which had ever been made in the use of steam on common roads". The resilience of the stout rubber tyres allowed his lightweight five ton steam engine to run on hard or soft, wet or dry surfaces, over obstacles, uphill or downhill. In addition, the thick rubber tyres did not damage the roads as did the iron wheels of heavy traction engines. Thomson's first road steamers, manufactured in his own small workshop in Leith, were fitted with three wheels, the small single wheel at the front being directly below the steering wheel. The tyres, which were 125 mm (5") thick, were corrugated internally and adhered to the wheel by friction.

He designed a 6hp traction engine with a vertical boiler mounted amidships and weighing 5 tons which he had built by T. M. Tennant and Co of the Bowershall Works in Edinburgh.

1871 Designer of five road locomotives that were made in 1871 and these were shipped to India to the order of Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton. [2] One was made by Thomson's own company prior to Tennants taking over manufacture. This was Prima. The other four were Chenab, Ravee, Hindus and Sutlej, these were essentially Thomson designs with a small bit of tinkering by Crompton (if that). These four were made by Ransomes, Sims and Head at Ipswich.

Thomson's road steamers, often drawing four fully loaded coal wagons totalling 40 tons up and down steep gradients, excited great interest in the streets of Edinburgh. Soon the first omnibus was in service between Edinburgh and Leith. Engines were exported to Java, India, Canada and Australia, and by 1871 were being manufactured under licence in both the UK and the USA by companies such as Tennant and Co of Leith, Charles Burrell and Sons in Thetford and Robey and Co in Lincoln.

1873 Died at his home in Moray Place, Edinburgh, aged 50. His mind was active to the end and his last patent, for elastic belts, seats and cushions, was filed after his death by his wife, Clara.

His Patents and developments:

  • Pneumatic tyre
  • Writing and drawing instruments (the self-filling pen)
  • Improvements in obtaining and applying motive power
  • Dividing hard substances such as rock stone and coal
  • Steam boilers
  • Improvements in steam gauges
  • Steam omnibuses
  • Applying steam power in cultivating land
  • Elastic wheel tyres
  • Road steamers
  • Guiding road streamers on street tramways
  • Elastic beds, seats and other supports or cushions.

Thomson was also the originator of:

  • The washing mangle with reversible mangles
  • The ribbon saw
  • Elliptical rotary engine
  • Use of electricity to detonate explosive charges
  • Machinery for sugar manufacturing
  • The portable steam crane
  • Hydraulic dry dock

1873 Obituary [3]

DEATH OF Mr. R. W. THOMSON.- We announce with regret the death of Mr. R. W. Thomson well known as the inventor of india-rubber tires for traction engines, or, as he loved to call them, road steamers.

Mr. Thomson was born in Stonehaven, in 1822,and served his time in shops in Aberdeen and Dundee.

At the age of nineteen he started for London, With a very few pounds in his pocket, to push the ideas which he had conceived of firing mines by electnc1ty. He took his invention to Faraday, who approved of it; and Cubitt, possibly on the strength of Faraday's opinion, gave young Thomson employment in carrying out blasting operations near Dover.

He was next employed by the Stephensons. When not more than twenty-two he turned his attention to the use of india-rubber for tires, but the material was so scarce and dear that he made no progress with the invention.

In 1852 he went out to Java to erect sugar machinery, and be there became partner with a manufacturer. Mr. Thomson visited England from time to time, and invented a steam crane and an hydraulic dock about 1860.

In 1862 Mr. Thomson left Java and settled in Edinburgh. The history of the traction engine and tires with which his name is united is too well-known to need repetition here. Mr. Thomson was a great sufferer for several years, and his death was by no means unexpected.


Extract from Steam Locomotion on Common Roads by William Fletcher. Published 1891.

Mr. R. W. Thompson (sic) was born at Stonehaven in 1822. Early in life he was sent to the United States of America to be made a merchant of, but he disliked the calling, and returned to England when sixteen years of age. He spent two years of his life making experiments in chemistry and electricity, interspersed with engineering schemes.

He was next apprenticed to engineering, at Aberdeen and Dundee, filling up his spare moments during this period in inventing a rotary engine, &c.

After serving his apprenticeship during which he made rapid progress, he was employed by the Stephensons.

In 1844 he commenced business on his own account. Two years later he conceived the idea of applying indiarubber tyres to ordinary conveyances. We read in volume xlv. of the Mechanics' Magazine that noiseless tyres had been applied to a brougham which was running in the London parks, the invention of Mr Thompson. Indiarubber at that time was scarce and badly made, so the invention brought in poor returns. Moreover, the powerful railway companies in due course adopted the tyres to the platform handcarts, and paid him no royalty. Thompson sent in a plan for the 1851 Exhibition, which received some attention; and a fountain pen of his invention was sold inside the exhibition.

In 1862 he had settled in Edinburgh. The portable crane was one of his most useful inventions. A traction engine being required for use in Java, from whence Thompson had recently returned, he commenced to design one in harmony with his own ideas, which resulted in his invention of the indiarubber tyres for the wheels, and the "pot" boiler, in 1867, which made his name famous. Although numerous inventors had cherished the idea of applying indiarubber or other soft substances, covered with leather, &c., to the tyres of road locomotives, before 1867, they having no doubt received the inspiration from his noiseless tyres in 1846, yet he was the first to put the idea into practical shape.

In December, 1867, a small road locomotive having a "pot" boiler and vulcanised rubber tyres to the wheels was being tested, and the newspapers pronounced the engine to be "in advance of everything which had preceded it." The steam cylinder was 5 in. diameter, and 8 in. stroke. The engine was mounted upon three wheels, all of which were fitted with rubber tyres, the driving wheel tyres being 12 in. wide and 5 in. thick. Numerous trials were run with this engine, drawing a large omnibus behind, at the rate of 10 to 12 miles an hour. It was said: "Mr. Thompson intends to run the engine over to Glasgow by the road, for shipment to Java, where it is to be used for travelling between two towns, about 40 miles apart, taking in tow a large omnibus full of passengers, or trains of wagons, at the speed which has already been acomplished in the trials which have been made in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. We illustrate by Fig. 64 one of Thompson's road steamers, made in 1868 by Messrs. Tennant and Co., of Leith, for use in the Island of Ceylon.

From the illustration it will be seen, the horizontal engine and vertical pot boiler were mounted upon a wrought-iron frame of channel iron, presenting a neat and compact appearance. This engine was subjected to some severe trials previous to its shipment for Ceylon. We are unable to afford the space to give particulars of a tithe of the trips made by Mr. Thompson with his road steamers. However, in 1869 some trials were made with two 6-horse engines, under Mr. Thompson's directions, which exhibited their tractive power and speed in a remarkable manner. "One of the 6 ton road steamers was harnessed to four wagons of pig iron — weight of iron and wagons, 34 tons — which it drew without an effort or any stoppage from the foot to the top of Granton Road, a distance of a quarter of a mile, with inclines of one in eighteen. Arrived at the top, it turned with its train and ran back to its starting point It may be pointed out that the drawing of 34 tons, besides the engine's own weight, up one in twenty, is equal to drawing 100 tons or more on a level road. The other road steamer was attached to an omnibus which conveyed a party of gentlemen from Granton to Leith. The distance is two and three-quarter miles, and the journey was performed at the rate of over eight miles an hour, that being the highest speed at which it was deemed safe to run through a town."

This road steamer had been built specially for omnibus traffic, and was exceedingly light and compact One morning a road steamer was taken down on to the sea sands at Portobello, and ran up and down there at the rate of ten miles an hour, the rain pouring all the time in torrents. A road steamer was employed at Aberdeen to draw a 15 ton boiler on a 5 ton wagon through some of the streets at three miles an hour. An engineer writes: "It is certainly a feat for a 5 ton engine to drag out a 20 ton load and climb gradients of one in twenty with single gear. We had all Aberdeen turned out as we passed. It was an unusual sight to see the infant 'Hercules' in front of the great boiler, 30 feet long and 7 feet in diameter, bowling along with it like a plaything at its tail, whilst the plaything itself shook the houses again as it danced over the rough causeway."

It would be amusing to quote the foolish statements made respecting the unprotected vulcanised rubber tyres; indeed a great deal of harm was done to the cause of indiarubber tyres by the inconsistent statements of some of their promoters, who invested them with almost marvellous capabilities. One advocate remarked that because the soft tyres resembled the feet of the elephant and the camel, which have large soft cushions in hard hoofs, and as no other animal can bear so much walking over hard roads as they can accomplish, therefore these tyres would pass over newly- broken road metal, broken flints, and all kinds of sharp things without leaving a mark on the rubber. And we were repeatedly informed that the tyres were not affected by heat, cold, or moisture, and were durable beyond all conception; and yet, in the face of all this claimed durability, no end of schemes were being proposed and patented for protecting the surface of the tyres from injury. As one writer nicely puts it, when noticing one of the methods of attaching metal shoes round the tyres: "Considering how much has been said concerning the everlasting properties of the indiarubber tyres, it is curious that so much ingenuity should be expended in affording them protection."

In January, 1870, Mr. Thompson sent out an eight horse road steamer to India, which, though not a success (says Mr. Crompton), proved that the rubber tyres were not affected by climate, and that the engine was handy and manageable.

Four larger engines were eventually Ordered by the Indian Government of which particulars follow. At the Royal Show at Oxford, July, 1870, two road steamers with indiarubber tyres were shown, running about the ground, "twisting, turning — we are inclined to say waltzing — and disporting themselves generally in a manner suggestive of what a pair of gigantic steam kittens or other frolicsome animals might do. One engine was tried without the steel chain armour around the wheel tyre, and on the strain being thrown on one wheel the tyre on that wheel snapped right across."

Fig. 65 shows a section of Thompson's original rubber tyred wheel, which was constructed of wrought iron plates, strengthened by angle iron and diagonal stays, with low flanges on each side to keep the tyres in place. The periphery of the wheel was polished, and then drilled all over with 0.625in. holes. The elastic tyre was made a little less in diameter than the wheel, and being stretched in order to get it on the wheel, had a tendency to contract, which helped to keep it in its place. The boss or nave of the wheel was made of cast iron. The wheel ran with the indiarubber in contact with the ground. To prevent the wheels from slipping on soft and damp roads, the chain armour was introduced. Fig. 66 shows a part side elevation of a rubber-tyred wheel with the chain armour applied. Fig. 67 shows a section of the same wheel. This species of armour consisted of steel plates or shoes, joined together by flat links of malleable cast iron, and was a constant source of annoyance in practice, owing to the breakage of the link pins, and the difficulty of keeping the tyre in its place unless the shoes were very tight. When an indiarubber tyre is working without shoes, at a speed of 8 miles per hour, there is a much greater amount of indiarubber on the leading side than on the following side of the wheel. On the leading side the excess of indiarubber accommodates itself by 'bagging out' as shown by Fig. 68 while in the rear it is in a state of tension, and tightly grips the iron wheel. From this action the indiarubber tyre is continuously working round with a reverse motion to that of the drum. The rate of this motion depends upon the tightness with which it was originally stretched, its density, its thickness, and the weight of the wheel. If the wheel is lightly loaded, the tyre will scarcely move, while if it is heavily compressed, a great portion of it is rolled out towards the front," and the amount of the reverse action becomes very great. Under ordinary circumstances the tyre will move once round the drum in from 30 to 40 revolutions. It is evident that friction must take place in the indiarubber tyre, from its contrary rotation round the iron drum, and also from the continuous change of form it undergoes.

It is self evident from the above remarks that indiarubber tyres, to be successful, should be relieved of all driving strain.

In spite of the bad name, and whatever drawbacks the indiarubber tyres may possess, it is impossible to ignore the following facts, which must be placed to their credit. They act as an excellent spring, and are placed where the spring should be situated — that is, in the nearest point to the road, thus saving the engine from a great amount of wear and tear and rough usage. They are perfectly noiseless. Owing to their flexibility they always possess a regular amount of sur- face of adhesion, which on paved roads is almost indispensable.

The injury to the road may be said to be nil, for there has never been any complaint from the road authorities of any damage done by them ; and they are one of the means devised for enabling a road locomotive to travel over the highway at a sensible speed, say 7 to 10 miles an hour.

Another advantage of the rubber tyre is mentioned by Mr. John Head. "On good macadam its resistance is more than that of the rigid wheel, and on a rough or newly-metalled road, owing to its great surface, it does not sink below the tops of the stones, while the rigid wheel consumes a great amount of power from sinking into the surface of the road with a crushing and grinding action."

The great cost of the rubber tyres had, no doubt, much to do with their ultimate disuse. The failure of the indiarubber tyre at the trials at the Royal Show, at Wolverhampton, in 1871, owing to the slippery state of the land after the excessive rains, is very well known. "The clay was spurted up from under the wheels, and entered between the indiarubber and the rim of the drums, and so lubricated the parts that there was a revolution of the iron rim within the indiarubber."

Thompson's tyres answered well for regular road purposes. The experiments carried out by Mr. Crompton, in India, proved: "(i) That upon the level roads of India, traction engines can be relied on to work a service of trains with great regularity and at a fair speed, and that passengers can be conveyed at eight miles an hour. (2) That the rubber tyres, as used in such running, are of great service in reducing the cost of the ordinary engine repairs, and in giving uniformity of adhesion, without in the least degree damaging the surface of the roads."

Such was the demand for Thompson's road steamers between 1870 and 1873, that Messrs. Tennant and Co., of Leith, could not make them fast enough. Engines of this type were made by Messrs. Robey and Co., of Lincoln ; Messrs. Ransomes, Sims and Head, of Ipswich; Messrs. Charles Burrell and Sons, of Thetford; and others, particulars of which follow.

Thompson's pot boiler was not a success; it was abandoned in favour of the Field vertical, or locomotive multitubular type of boiler. The indiarubber tyres, with suitable protection, continued to be used until the time of Mr. Thompson's death, which occurred on the 8th of March, 1873, he being in his 51st year. Although his two chief inventions were not a thorough success, yet he paved the way for other schemers, and by his efforts steam locomotion on common roads was rapidly advanced.


1873 Obituary [4]



1922 The centenary of an event which has had a far-reaching effect on mechanical transport was celebrated on June 29th, when a memorial tablet was placed on the house in Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, where R. W. Thomson, the inventor of the pneumatic tire, was born.[5]

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The London Gazette Publication date:24 February 1847 Issue:20708 Page:809
  2. A Roadside Camera by Michael E. Ware. Published by David and Charles in 1974. ISBN 0 7153 6791 9
  3. The Engineer 1873/03/14
  4. Engineering 1873 Jan-Jun: Index: General Index
  5. The Engineer 1922/07/07
  • [1] Wikipedia
  • Buses and Trolleybuses before 1919 by David Kaye. Published 1972