Historical Origins

Historical Origins

The shortage of wild rubber, and the dependence on South America for supplies led the India Office in London to sponsor various attempts to establish rubber producing plants in what was then British India.

Three early attempts failed, but in 1887 a British explorer and plant collector, Henry Wickham, smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds of Hevea Brasiliensis (a rare tree, but the best rubber producer) out of Brazil.  They had to be smuggled because Brazil did not want its virtual monopoly on rubber to be broken.  The seeds were germinated at Kew Gardens in London, and about 2,400 plants were shipped out to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  Enough plants survived to allow some to be sent on to Singapore, and from there they went on to form the great rubber estates in the Malay States (now Malaysia).

The first rubber from all these efforts was tapped in Ceylon in 1884, and the first tapping in Singapore took place in 1889.  The first commercial shipment of rubber from the Far East was 4 tons in 1890.  From these small beginnings, plantation rubber, with its big advantages in terms of consistent supply and quality, grew rapidly, so that by 1910 the Far East was exporting 10,000 tons a year.  By 1919 this had grown to 350,000 tons a year, out of a total world production of 400,000 tons, and it had more or less taken over completely from wild rubber.  The Far East had become the main source of the world's natural rubber!

At the same time as the change in the source of supply was taking place, the most important rubber product of them all was being developed.  As early as 1845 an Englishman, Robert William Thompson, had invented the pneumatic (air filled) tyre.  Unfortunately, it was before its time.  There was no real market demand for the product, which was aimed at heavy vehicles such as traction engines, and the technology of the day - leather and animal bladders - was not good enough to make any tires with any reasonable life.  The ideas was forgotten until 1888.

In that year a Scottish veterinary surgeon, John Boyd Dunlop, "reinvented" the pneumatic tyre.  Dunlop, amongst many others, was convinced that there had to be something better than the solid tyres then being used on bicycles, and his first "tyre" consisted of a wooden disc fitted with a blown up rubber tube, which was held on to the rim of the disc by a canvas strip nailed onto the disc.

By bowling the "tyre" along, he saw that it would go much further than a similar sized solid wheel for the same amount of effort.  This led on to further versions, including the first real tyres - this time with a rubber tread on the canvas - which he fitted to the rear wheels of his son's tricycle.  The idea was then exploited by the formation of the Pneumatic Tyre Company in Dublin (later The Dunlop Rubber Company) which was set up to make bicycle tyres.  The tyre industry was born!