July 10, 2010

King of the Road

with Onome Amawhe
If the name, John Boyd Dunlop, isn’t a familiar one to you – at least the surname Dunlop, should. Mr. Dunlop (February 5, 1840 – October 23, 1921) an icon of the road and the choice of racing legends has played a significant part in motoring development since he invented the pneumatic tyre in 1888.
Born into a farming family in Dreghorn in Ayrshire, John Boyd Dunlop at only 19 has had a successful veterinarian practice in Edinburgh, having graduated from the University of Edinburgh, but this is not what he became famous for. Like many a father, he paid attention to his son’s doings. He couldn’t help but notice that, every time his son rode his tricycle; he seemed to be in some great discomfort.

This was not surprising, since, in those days, tires were solid rubber. Every bump in the road was felt deeply. Something had to be done.

Dunlop was a man of some imagination and inventiveness. So, he took his son’s tricycle and set about the task of improving the situation. He wrapped thin rubber sheets around the wheels and then glued them together. Then he pumped them up with a foot pump. The world’s first commercially practicable pneumatic tyre had been invented. It was 1887. In 1888, he received a patent for this invention. Sadly, however, two years later he was informed that there was some overlap with the invention of one Robert William Thomson – a Scottish inventor, curiously – who had patented a similar idea in 1846 in France and 1847 in the US. Nevertheless, Dunlop didn’t let go of his idea. He sold his patent to a William Harvey Du Cros who was intent on commercializing it, in exchange for 1,500 shares in the resultant company, Dunlop Tyres.

Though Dunlop Tyres went on to become a world beating company, their products displacing solid rubber tyres around the world, within ten years, John Boyd Dunlop himself did not make a great fortune from his invention. Dunlop Tyres has diversified since then – there are Dunlop Motorcycle Tires, Dunlop Truck Tires (Tyres), Dunlop Racing Tires, Dunlop Mud Tires  and beyond that into merchandizing: Dunlop bags, Dunlop golf equipment, Dunlop bowling shoes, Dunlop squash rackets , Dunlop tennis rackets  and Dunlop golf balls.

And the company went on to become a global brand. What strikes me about all of this is that although Dunlop lived a relatively quiet life, that one moment of invention for his son, changed the world, in some significant way. It was Dunlop’s pneumatic tire that was commercialized. It is Dunlop tires that many of us drive around on.

Dunlop could have become a big industrialist – but he didn’t have the appetite – and perhaps not the aptitude – to commercialize his work – so this was done by William Harvey Du Cros. So, although Dunlop did not become a mega-rich Bill Gates type figure – as he could have done, through revolutionizing transport – he did transcend the everyday limits of his life – and left behind a brand name that continues to grow until today. Yet, all he was really trying to do was make his son’s tricycle ride a little more comfortable. I find that rather sweet – but also significant.

It is difficult for us to know the full impact of what we do in life. John Boyd Dunlop didn’t know – and neither do we.

In 1890 Dunlop opened its first tyre plant in Dublin, Ireland and three years later its first tyre factory in mainland Europe in Hanau, Germany. In 1895 the first automobile drove on pneumatic tyres and Dunlop tyres were also being sold in France and Canada, and manufactured in Australia and the USA. By 1898 the business had outgrown its Dublin base, and production was transferred first to Coventry, England and then in 1902 to the 400-acre site in Birmingham, England – later known to the world as Fort Dunlop. In twenty years, Dunlop had made the solid tyre obsolete and grown from pioneer to the first global multinational company, manufacturing and selling worldwide. Dunlop’s history is rich with important innovations that have improved the driving experience for everybody on the road.

If the discovery of the aquaplaning phenomenon, the invention of “fail safe” tyres, and the introduction of the 3S-technology stand out as highlights, Dunlop is proud of numerous other successes during the past 120 years. Within a decade virtually all wheels used pneumatic tyres and Dunlop’s company continued to expand to become the multi-national Dunlop Tire and Rubber Corporation and the Dunlop Rubber Co. Ltd.

In the early 1890s Dunlop established branches in Europe, North America and Australia. Although the pneumatic tyre was successful, Dunlop ran into financial difficulties, and had to sell its overseas operations. A significant disposal was the sale of the Australian branch in 1899. Since then, Dunlop Australia has not been connected with the British company, except for a 25% share in Dunlop Australia owned by the British company from 1927 to 1984.

As a result, the rights to the Dunlop brands in Australia and New Zealand have been under different ownership from those in the rest of the world.In 1900 the company started production of tyres for motor cars. The company continued its expansion, and in 1918 production started at the new plant at Fort Dunlop, Birmingham.

By 1920 the company had selling subsidiaries or branches in South Africa, South America, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and India, manufacturing operations in France, Japan and the USA, and rubber plantations in Malaya and Ceylon.In the 1920s, competition from foreign companies intensified in the UK tyre market, and Dunlop diversified.

In 1925 Dunlop acquired the Charles Mackintosh group, and the Dunlop name was applied to footwear and clothing.In 1925 a separate Aerospace Division was formed to meet the growing aircraft industry’s demand for tyres and rubber products.

In 1929 the company discovered the use of latex foam for mattresses, which were then marketed under the Dunlopillo brand. In the 1930s other products involving the use of latex were added to the company’s range, including golf balls and tennis racquets.In 1943, the Admiralty Experimental Diving Unit was tasked to develop a suit for divers.

Dunlop Rubber produced the Admiralty Underwater Swim Suit Mark I and swim fins they also designed an oxygen rebreathe. After the war, the UK tyre market was a seller’s market. By 1955 Dunlop had almost half of the market.

A report by the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission in that year found that Dunlop and the four other main players in the UK market (Goodyear, Avon, Firestone and Michelin) had arrangements which resulted in fixed prices.

These arrangements had to change, and Dunlop’s market share declined. A further factor in Dunlop’s decline was the decision in the early 1960s to develop textile radial tyres rather than the more durable steel-belted radial tyres. Dunlop lost ground to Michelin and other manufacturers marketing steel-belted tyres.

In 1968 Dunlop acquired George Angus Ltd, a manufacturer of a wide range of products based on rubber, from Wellingtons to O-rings and fire hose.John Boyd Dunlop’s family were farmers and it was on his father’s farm that he first noticed the problem of wheeled locomotion as it then existed.

As a boy, he noticed that a wooden agricultural roller of large dimensions on farm was much easier to draw than a lighter stone roller of lesser diameter, because the larger roller skimmed over the surface of the soft ground as the area of the surface of the roller in contact with the ground was comparatively small. This observation engaged his mind and he was said to have once said that he had an abiding interest in the problems of road, rail and sea transport.

The Dunlop clans were extensive tenant farmers and John Boyd recounts the tradition that at one time one could walk on a vast stretch of land keeping on the lands of the Dunlop clan. As John Boyd’s constitution did not appear robust enough for farming his parents decided after his elementary to put him on an academic course and he attended the Irvine Academy before proceeding to the Royal Dick Veterinary College in Edinburgh where he qualified as a veterinary surgeon at the age of 19. In December 1871 he married Margaret Stevenson, described on the marriage register as a saleswoman and daughter of James Stevenson, a farmer. By the age of fifty, John Boyd had the largest veterinary practice in Ireland, selling medicines which he had developed under his patents.

At the time of his death many of the medicines were still commonly used and he accumulated a large income from his activities. He was based in Gloucester Street with premises which extended into May Street in Belfast Ireland.

Dunlop was a sound businessman if not as spectacular as the Du Crosses with whom he was to associate shortly. Dunlop had never ridden a bicycle and at this time there were no cycles or rubber factories in Ireland.

Tricycles and bicycles had solid tyres as would the carriages and dogcarts of the time in which he traveled about for his veterinary business. John Boyd Dunlop retired to Dublin and died there in 1921.

*With additional agency reports

Coming Up: 50 Business Legends ,a special feature advertising on trans-generational businesses and their founders will be published as a follow-on supplement to this series.