THE long list of great Scottish inventors always features John Boyd Dunlop (1840-1921) as the man who devised the pneumatic tyre. Except that he didn’t.

Without question, the man who invented the pneumatic tyre was Dunlop’s fellow Scot Robert William Thomson (1822-73) who had international patents for his “‘aerial wheels” four decades before Dunlop tried to patent his development.

A reader has taken me to task for missing the bicentenary of the birth of Thomson but I can only plead that I was on holiday at the time. Instead this week sees the 200th anniversary of his baptism which took place on July 26 1822, a month after his birth on June 29.

I suspect 99 % of Scots were unaware of the bicentenary, despite the valiant work of the R W Thomson Memorial Fellowship which is dedicated to promoting awareness of this extraordinary inventor.

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Thomson was born in Stonehaven, the son of a local mill owner and the 11th of 12 children in all. Educated locally, it seems he was destined to become a minister, but his failure to master Latin put paid to that. Instead at the age of 14 his parents sent Thomson to the USA, where he lived for two years with his uncle in Charleston, South Carolina.

He was supposed to be learning the trade of a merchant but after two years he returned to Scotland and began to teach himself astronomy and chemistry, and also studied the production and usage of electricity. His father provided a workshop in which Thomson began his lifetime of invention.

His first practical invention was a boon to his mother – he devised a mangle that allowed wet clothing to pass through rollers both ways, thus halving the amount of mangle use.

By the age of 17 he had already invented a form of ribbon saw and and had begun work on a rotary steam engine to which he would return in later life. It was clear he was destined to be an engineer and inventor, and thus Thomson was given an engineering apprenticeship served in Aberdeen, Dundee and Glasgow before he joined a firm in Edinburgh.

It was there while hardly out of his teens that Thomson created his first major invention, one that would save many lives. He devised a method of igniting explosives using electricity, and it would quickly become the standard method for use in coal mines, putting an end to the dangerous days of lighting touch paper.

Thomson moved to London where he sought out the greatest scientist of the day, Michael Faraday (below). He was impressed by Thomson’s intellect and commitment and recommended the young Scotsman to the South Eastern Railway Company where the engineers Sir William Cubitt and Robert Stephenson – son of rail pioneer George Stephenson – took him under their wings, with his first major task being the blasting of new routes around Dover. This was successfully accomplished without loss of life due to his electric fuse system.

At the age of just 22, Thomson set himself up in business as a consultant for railway companies which were expanding fast – too fast, as panic set in amongst investors, and even though the routes he devised for the eastern counties of England were later adopted with some still in use today, Thomson decided to move on.

He was intrigued by the possible uses of rubber in industry and in 1844 he began work on his greatest invention – the pneumatic tyre. Thomson’s genius idea was to have a thin rubber tube filled with air inside the already existing indiarubber tyres that were in limited use.

In December, 1845, he obtained a patent No 10990 for what he called his “aerial wheels”, and further patents followed in France and the USA over the next two years. The problem was that Thomson was far ahead of his time – rubber was very expensive, not particularly reliable and there were no cars and few bicycles. Nevertheless his invention caused a sensation in 1847 when Thomson fitted his aerial wheels to horse drawn carriages and staged a race in Regent’s Park against carriages without his tires – Thomson’s carriages were far quicker and more comfortable than the rest and one set of his wheels reportedly lasted for 1200 miles.

(It was not until the 1880s that John Boyd Dunlop, then practising as a vet in Ireland, fitted an air-filled tube inside the hard rubber tyres of a children’s bicycle. Within weeks, his tyres were fitted to a champion cyclist’s bike, and Dunlop was on his way to fame and fortune. He applied for a patent but was told that Thomson had beaten him to it by 43 years.)

His old mentor Sir William Cubitt gave Thomson a boost when he incorporated some of Thomson’s work into his design for the Crystal Palace, centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Thomson was then contracted to work in Java where the inventions continued to flow from 1852 onwards. He designed machinery that improved sugar production, devised a rotary steam engine – as he had begun to do in his teens – and the world’s first mobile steam crane, as well as inventing a hydraulic dry dock.

He also found a wife, Clara Hertz, the daughter of a local diamond merchant, and they would have two children. But Thomson’s health was damaged by the climate in Java, and after 10 years he returned to Scotland, setting up in business and making his home at Moray Place in Edinburgh.

Convinced that rubber tyres were the future, Thomson added them and a steam engine to a carriage and thus devised the world’s first practical road-going steam traction engine in 1867. Next he invented “Thomson’s Steamers”, road engines which included a vehicle that carried passengers between Edinburgh and Leith.

The Steamers were exported to India and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and made Thomson a small fortune. Yet he was never able to enjoy a wealthy old age as Thomson died at the age of 50 on March 8, 1873.

Even after his death Thomson’s inventiveness lived on as his wife Clara subsequently patented his designs for elastic cushions and belts.