There exist in this world famous people of whom you have never heard. Willie Hume is one of them, although in his case it’s existed rather than exist. For old Willie died 70 years ago this fall.
And why should we care?
Because he was the first man in the world to buy a pair of pump-up bike tires. John Boyd Dunlop had perfected fitting them to bike wheels in 1887, and Hume was his first customer. Had he and Dunlop not withstood the jeers of all who heard about these wacky pneumatics, then we might still be bumping along on solid rubber.
So today, let’s drink a toast to Willie (photo, at left).
Oh Captain, My Captain
For a man nobody’s heard of, we know a fair bit about our pioneering friend. He was the captain of the Cruisers club in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Many clubs still had captains in those days. They were what we’d now call a ride leader, except that then many cyclists wore an army-style uniform, and the captain directed them with bugle calls.
He was 27 when he paid Dunlop for a new bike. To it were fitted a pair of Dunlop’s clumsy pneumatic tires. Other cyclists could see nothing but ill of them. They were sure to explode on the first sharp stone. They couldn’t be repaired by the roadside. They were too soft to be steered safely. And above all else, you could just see from the flat where they met the road that you’d be riding permanently uphill.
All these things, to varying degree, were true. Even the bit about riding uphill – we get over that now by pumping the tires harder than Hume or Dunlop could manage. When we don’t, we curse not the sensation of riding uphill but what we call road drag or rolling resistance.
The Boot-Lace Brigade
Hume, on the other hand, could see the future. He laughed at his detractors and called them the boot-lace brigade, a reference to the thin, black solid tires they rode.
Dunlop had heard it all before. He told Hume he could silence his critics for good if he tried the tires in a race. On May 18, 1889, therefore, Hume entered four events on a track laid out around a cricket ground at Queen’s College, Belfast. He won them all. He then crossed the sea to England and again beat the “cracks” in all but one race in Liverpool.
The bell had rung for the death of the solid tire.
Hume, of course, was the celebrity of his day even though we’ve never heard of him now. But things didn’t turn out well for everyone else.
Seeing Into the Future
In the crowd at Queen’s College was another Willie – William Harvey du Cros – who was both a member of the British parliament and not short of money. He had made his pile in making paper and now he saw a way of increasing it in pneumatic tires and, he reasoned, not just for bicycles but also for the newfangled motor cars that were catching people’s attention.
Du Cros stumped up £3,000 and bought Dunlop’s patent. Within six months he had founded the Pneumatic Tire Company. It was a great success. But then two years later a man called Robert Thompson said he had not only invented the pneumatic tire before Dunlop, but that he had patented it in France in 1846 and in the USA a year later.
Dunlop, so far as I can make out, had to settle for 1,500 shares in Du Cros’ company and never made much money from them. Hume died in 1941, unknown to all but his friends and cycling historians.
But it wouldn’t do any harm to thank them both, nevertheless, would it?