To completely understand and appreciate the beautiful and rich history of tires, you first have to travel back three-and-a-half millennia before the arrival of Jesus Christ. This is the time that man’s greatest invention, the wheel, was made.
The first record of the wheel can be traced back to the year 3500 B.C. during the Neolithic era, a few decades before the beginning of the Bronze Age. Created firstly to aid in agricultural efforts, wheels were soon used in everything from buggies to small toys and are one of the most impressive symbols of human technological advancement.
A major issue of the wheel, however, was and remains to this day the deterioration due to wear and tear. Although the central axle was wonderful for moving things quickly, including heavy things that often took days or even months to move before its invention, it was easily worn down. Constant rotation around a central axle allowed people freedoms and creativity like never before, but the uneven wear and tear of these wheels slowly wasted away, and not evenly, either.
If a twig, branch, rock, or other piece of hindrance were to get in the way of the wheel, it would break it in uneven places, nullifying its usability in a time that wheels were becoming ever more necessary to perform tasks.
During that time, an expendable layer of material that could absorb damage and extend the lifespan of the wheel was needed. This would limit the amount of money spent on wheel repairs and could be easily changed when necessary, and when the aforementioned expandable layer of material wore down, it would be replaced at a far more reasonable price than fixing the entire wheel itself. Enter the tire.
If you’ve heard of Goodyear Tires and wondered about that company’s history, listen to this.
Vulcanization was discovered by Charles Goodyear in the early 1800s and its process is quite straightforward. Vulcanization simply turns rubber from a sticky and soft material into something much harder, more firm, moldable and pliable, making the substance a perfect fit for a wheel’s jacket. When rubber is heated with sulfur, you have rubber tires.
Reverting to the beginning of tire history, rubber once again became the main material of choice for tires. Vulcanization made the rubber more refined, strong, and could take reasonable amounts of damage before being completely ruined. Additionally, these new rubber tires had decent shock absorption.
Unfortunately, during the 1800s, the tires were heavy and bricklike, making for a continuously uncomfortable ride.
A Scottish engineer created and patented the first tire completely filled with air in 1845. It didn’t go as planned, and the idea eventually stalled after the thought didn’t create enough traction within the scientific community. It was never put into production.
A few decades later, Scottish born John Boyd Dunlap created the first successful pneumatic tire in Belfast in 1888. Dunlop was able to experiment with tires because he was already an extremely wealthy man. Dunlop was a veterinarian and had many practices within the country. He started developing the tire after his son complained of a harsh ride on his bicycle.
Some of man’s greatest inventions have been spurred by the simple question: “What problem do I have and how can I fix it?”
Dunlop’s tire was so wildly successful that within just 12 months, the tire had won bicycle races all over England and Ireland. Dunlop continued to improve his invention over the years, including implementing his pneumatic tires for cars and trucks.
In the 40 years from 1880-1920, this rubber pneumatic tire underwent many adjustments and updates from Dunlop, Thomas Hancock, and others.
Bias plies and radial tires
By the time the 1920s rolled around, synthetic rubbers had been developed and for the next 20-30 years, bias-ply tires were what people put on their bicycle and car wheels. These tires were made of two separate parts, which included an inflated inner tube and an outside casing. The inner tube was very much pressurized and protected by the outer casing. The outer casing was made of many layers.
After Hitler and the Germans were defeated in WWII, French brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin developed and created the Michelin radial tires in 1946. It was a huge step in the advancement of tire development. It was a far superior product than anything created before but did not catch hold as the best around the world until the 1970s.
Today, radial tires have become the most popular and normal tire around the world. Billions of radial tires are made and distributed every single year, and the industry is one of the largest around the globe.
Radials have since become the norm both here in the U.S. and around the world. And billions of tires are being made every year.
The history of retread tires goes back nearly as far as modern tires themselves. When bias-ply tires were the norm around the world, retreads started as a more economically pleasing method of re-using quality tire casings.
The development of these tires can be traced back to 1912, when Marion Oliver developed and patented pre-cured treads in California. The method is not dissimilar to modern retreading. The casing was torn back a bit and the new layer was added on top. Easy as that.
These retread tires became popular during the Great Depression because consumers were able to use the tires until they were completely worn down, and just get them retreaded. This financially reasonable way of working with tires made great use of people’s money when money was hard to come by.
Additionally, the tires gained popularity during and after WWII, because of the similar effect on the American economy.
Especially between 1942-1944, the retreading industry worldwide grew 500%. Natural rubber casing gave way to synthetic and man-made materials as technological advancements continued to increase. This allowed retreads to become even safer and closer in performance to brand new tires. Retreads lost their luster and their sales in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, however, today, retread tires are as durable and long lasting as brand new tires.
The development of tires is ever-changing and evolving. The increase in oil prices and other environmental concerns mean these tire manufacturers are constantly looking for other ways to improve their processes and product. Efficiency is the key like never before and new technologies, such as airless tires are being tested on commercial products all over the world.
Cars are changing as well, necessitating new technologies and inventions. Electric drivetrains are changing the game and autonomous cars are being developed. You’re seeing more and more electric cars on the road.
Environmental concerns are among the top issues tire manufacturers need to be concerned with, as the industry produced 242 million scrap tires per year, a huge waste.
Whatever the future holds, we can all say for certain that tires will not look the same as they do today in 100, 50, or even 20 years down the road.
Alex Thomas is a PR manager and writer for Carvine, a reputable car financing company. Alex likes to write about cars and the automotive industry and his work has been published on various online publications such as Motor Paper, Motors.co.uk and Car Throttle.