To fully appreciate the history of tires, you have to first look at the evolution of the wheel itself. Mans greatest invention, the wheel was first recorded back to 3500BC in the Neolithic era, just before the bronze age. Beginning with agriculture, wheels were soon used in everything from chariots to toys and are a symbol of human technological advancement. Could you imagine life before wheels? Wouldn't be fun, to say the least.
The First Tires
One of the major issues of wheels was and is, wear and tear. While the constant rotation around a central axle was excellent for carrying heavy things or moving quickly, it meant that the wheel would slowly wear away over time. They wouldn’t wear away evenly either. A chip, a rock or simple uneven wear would make the wheel no longer around causing the expensive task of replacing something that wasn’t quite broken. What was needed was an expendable layer that would absorb damage, wear away and then be easily replaced at a much more affordable cost than a brand new wheel. That is what a tire does.
Despite the need that they filled, tires are a relatively recent invention. The earliest types of tire were leather bands wrapped around a wooden wheel. The leather was quickly replaced with metal bands which lasted a lot longer. The emergence of trains and railway networks introduced steel tires to metal train wheels. The bands were heated by a Wheelwright who would heat the tire, place it over the wheel and then quench it. This would make the metal contract and fit tightly around the wheel.
If you’re thinking metal tires sound uncomfortable, you’re right. Metal tires were used on wagons that were used to tame the West because they were long lasting and cheap, but very uncomfortable, not particularly or reliable. One kink and the whole tire would have to taken off.
That is until vulcanization came about. Discovered by Charles Goodyear, vulcanization is basically when rubber is heated with sulfur. This process turns rubber from a sticky soft material, into something firm pliable material making rubber perfect for tires.
Once vulcanization became more refined, rubber became the new material of choice for tires. They were strong, could take reasonable amounts of damage and had good shock absorption. However, they were heavy and still gave an uncomfortable ride.
Solid Rubber Tires
Soon after the discovery of vulcanization, tires were made out of solid rubber. These tires were strong, absorbed shocks and resisted cuts and abrasions. Although they were a vast improvement, these tires were very heavy and did not provide a smooth ride.
Today there are still types of tires made of solid rubber.
In 1847, Robert W. Thompson, a Scottish Engineer, created and patented the first, air-filled tire. Alas, it didn’t get put into production and the idea stalled.
But in 1888 in Belfast, Ireland. Scottish born, John Boyd Dunlop created the first successful pneumatic tire. Dunlop was already a wealthy man, owning successful veterinary practices in the country, but he started developing the tire after his son complained of the harsh ride of his bicycle and its solid rubber tires.
The product proved so successful that a year after it was introduced, it won bicycle races in Ireland and England. Over the next few years, Dunlop worked hard to develop tires for all vehicles, from bicycles to cars and trucks. Between 1890 to 1920, the rubber pneumatic tire underwent a range of developments, both by Dunlop and by others such as Thomas Hancock.
Bias Plies and Radial Tires
By the 1920s, synthetic rubbers were had been developed for tires and for the few decades, ‘Bias Ply’ tires were what everyone used. These tires were made up of two separate parts:
- An inflated inner tube
- The outside tire or casing.
The inner tube was pressurized and was protected by the outer casing. The outer casing was made of layers called plies.
After WW2, Michelin developed radial tires and it was a huge step in tire development. Even though it was a much superior product, radial tires were slow to catch on in the US. Only in the early 1970s did radial tires start becoming the dominant technology.
Radial tires have since become the norm both here in the US and around the world. And billions of tires are being made every year.
Retreads have been around almost as long as modern tires themselves. Retreads were introduced when bias-ply tires were the norm. They started as a cost-effective method of reusing good quality tire casings.
The development of retreads can be attributed to Marion Oliver, who in 1912 developed and patented pre-cured treads. The method is similar to modern retreading process: First, the casing was buffed back to the base then a new tire layer was added on top.
Retreads became particularly popular during the Great Depression. People were able to use tires until they were worn down and get them retreaded. World War 2 had a similar effect on the retread industry. As post-war America struggled to make ends meet, retreads were a cost-effective way to keep cars and trucks on the road.
Between 1942 and 1944, the retreading industry grew by 500%. Natural rubbers finally gave way to synthetics for good and more technological advancements were developed that allowed retreads to be safer and become closer in performance to brand new tires. However, due to a mixture of reasons, including the falling cost of new tires, tire retreading slowly dwindled through the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Retreading became experienced a resurgence in the 90s though when computer-controlled tire retreading machines became widely available. Machines were also developed that could scan tires ultrasound and x-ray technology which made selecting cases and in turn, retreaded tires, even safer.
Modern retreads can last just as long as new tires and are just as safe.
Tires are constantly evolving and developing. Rising oil prices and environmental concerns mean that tire manufacturers are constantly looking at ways to manufacture tires in more efficient ways. New technologies such as Airless tires are being trialed on commercial vehicles.
Cars themselves are changing, with electric drivetrains starting to grow and autonomous cars being developed, the needs of tires will also change as well.
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