Robert William Thomson
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, United States, 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 washing mangle so that the 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 perfected 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. Soon 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.
Thomson was only 23 years old when he patented his pneumatic tyre. He was granted a patent in France in 1846 and in the US 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. Thomson's "Aerial Wheels" were demonstrated in London's Regents 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 1200 miles without sign of deterioration.
This patent also included the idea of the first rubber-tyred metro. A railway was illustrated, with the weight carried by pneumatic main wheels running on a flat board track and guidance provided by small horizontal steel wheels running on the sides of a central vertical guide rail.
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 anticipated it.
At the Great Exhibition 1851, Thomson demonstrated his self-filling fountain pen and an invalid chair with solid rubber tyres. 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.
Thomson returned to Scotland in 1862. 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 a solid India-rubber tyre 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.
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 US by companies such as Tennants of Leith, Charles Burrell in Thetford and Robey in Lincoln.
R. W. Thomson, the versatile genius, died at his home in Moray Place, Edinburgh, aged 50. His mind was active to the end, and his last patent application, for elastic belts, seats and cushions, was filed after his death by his wife, Clara. In 1922 the Royal Scottish Automobile Club presented the town of Stonehaven with a bronze plaque to mark the centenary of Robert William Thomson's birth. This was placed on the building on the south side of Market Square which occupies the site of his birthplace.
Patents and developments
- Pneumatic tyre ( see US Patent 5104 )
- 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 steamers on street tramways
- Elastic belts, 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
- "Scotland’s Forgotten Inventor – Robert William Thomson". Historic-UK.com. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
- see US Patent 5104
- Tompkins, Eric (1981). "1: Invention". The History of the Pneumatic Tyre. Dunlop Archive Project. pp. 2–4. ISBN 0-903214-14-8.