The Historic Quest to Invent a Flat-Proof Bicycle Tire

The need to develop a flat-proof bicycle tire began a few minutes (or maybe it was a few miles) after J.B. Dunlop, an Irish veterinary surgeon, invented the pneumatic (air-filled) tire all the way back in 1888.

Let’s take a look at some of the early, unsuccessful, and sometimes humorous attempts to do away with those darn flats – a problem we’ve still not eliminated!

Tacks? No Problem

A Canadian inventor came up with this ingenious design (above) in 1896, and claimed it could be ridden over tacks, glass and razors “without fear of puncture.” His design consisted of a series of elliptical steel springs set inside of and riveted to the rim. A steel band, an tire of sorts, then “passes around the outer [circumference] of the tire thus formed, which is in turn riveted to the springs forming a strong, resilient and ‘quick’ tire. It may be covered with rubber to keep out dirt and water.”

While this design was quite heavy and didn’t really work well for bikes, the basic concept was adopted years later when tanks were invented.

A Tack Extractor

Tacks were a huge problem. “For some time past young hoodlums of this borough have been placing tacks in the road to puncture bicycle tires,” according to The Scranton Republic, Pennsylvania, August 22, 1895.

There’s more, according to the Fall River Daily Evening News, Massachusetts, June 8, 1897 … “Every few days some misanthropic person, rural or urban, scatters tacks on the highway and then stands back to see the wheels cease going round.”

And so … according to the August 18, 1895 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “An Indianapolis genius has invented … a tack catcher for bicycles. When a pneumatic tire picks up a tack the tack does not penetrate very deeply at first, but is forced further into the fabric with every revolution of the wheel, until the inner tube is punctured. The device consists of a curved, comb-like piece of metal, armed with pointed teeth and extending backward from the forks of the machine, close to the surface of the tire. These teeth are intended to engage with the tack as soon as it enters the tire, and extract it.”

I did a little digging and found that this Indianapolis genius was John A. Wright, who was granted a patent for his Tack Catcher For Bicycles on July 16, 1895. Here’s his patent …

This post is from my cycling history book, The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind. Here’s the link to my story about it and here’s the etsy link to get the book. Lots more great stories like this one.

The Acid Test

“A new composition to place inside of bicycle tires to close punctures is about as thick as molasses and is formed by a mixture of glycerine and water-glass neutralized by adding acid …” reported The Daily Republican, Monongahela, Pennsylvania, April 26, 1897.

Water-glass? Its scientific name is: Sodium silicate, and it’s used as a binding agent/adhesive. So, it’s glue. And yes, this method did mean a cyclist had to carry a vile of acid with them when they rode, which was an accident waiting to happen.

Fill Up With Fiber

A group of wheelmen were out for a spin and came across thorns. Lots of thorns. Unfortunately, their tires were not equipped with Wright’s tack catchers, and so, flats. Lots of flats.

According to The Chicago Chronicle, April 19, 1895: “A farmer who saw the wheelmen’s dilemma conceived the idea of repairing the tire in a unique manner. He simply filled the tire with bran. It was not quite as resilient as the ordinary pneumatic tire, but served its purpose well and aided the rider in reaching home without much delay.”

Gumming Up the Works

“An enterprising tire firm is distributing packages of chewing gum with instructions how to use the gum for the temporary repair of a punctured tire,” wrote The Chicago Chronicle on September 27, 1896.

Spearmint seemed to work the best.

Having a Ball

If a tack or thorn punctures a tire, the entire tire deflates. So, let’s make a tire with as many air- filled compartments as possible. If one is punctured, the others will maintain the integrity of the tire. Right?

According to the St. Joseph Saturday Herald, Michigan, March 26, 1896: “The new tire (above) is an arrangement of independently detachable hollow rubber balls, held in position by a channeled aluminum rim. The balls when inflated will stand a pressure of 25 pounds to the square inch … as the wheel revolves three of the balls are always in contact with the surface and bear the weight of the rider … One-third of the balls might be punctured without causing a bicyclist to end the trip …”

Different versions of this invention are still out there. And work. Sort of.

Spring Is In the Air

Dr. Emil Christiansen of Leavenworth, Kansas decided to fill a tire with springs (above).

According to Scientific American, in 1896: On the inner surface of the tire are lugs, preferably made of rubber, and the lugs are connected by springs of such length that, should the air escape from the tire, the springs would hold it distended and enable the tire to be used when not inflated almost as well as when inflated.

Let’s End With A Funny One

It’s some time in 1896 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. “A well-known Windsor man,” according to The Windsor Star, was quite annoyed with the way his brand-new bicycle behaved. “I thought you said this wheel ran easy,” he practically shouted at the bike-shop owner. “Why, it would take a 60-horse power engine to move it.”

The perplexed dealer asked the well-known Windsor man what the heck he’d done to the wheel. “Nothing, only I poured about a half bottle of oil you gave me into the bearings,” he replied.

“But I gave you no oil,” said the bicycle man.

They “held a consultation” and determined that “instead of oiling his wheel with triple X bicycle oil, [he] had poured into the bearings about a gill of tire cement.”

This post is from my cycling history book, The Boy With No Legs Who Rode Like the Wind. Here’s the link to my story about it and here’s the etsy link to get the book. Lots more great stories like this one.


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