The Birth of the Modern Tire

January 8th, 2015

Every Stratham Tire Store probably smells the same, like rubber. We’ve grown to love it, but when you really think about it, what you’re also smelling is years  of technology and innovation. From the chemicals and compounds used to create the perfect material, to the technology used to give tires the traction and control that keep you safe. Modern tires are a testament to science and industry.

Tires have come a long way since the early tires you may see in pictures of the Ford Model T

Before tire designers like Goodyear and Michelin could adjust and perfect the actual design of tires on automobiles over the years, the actual composition of the tire had to be perfected first. In the mid 17th century, rubber was still a very new product. However, consumers and manufacturers quickly learned that early rubber quickly deteriorated when exposed to heat — making it a pretty unreliable material for the high-friction created by car tires. Because of this, Charles Goodyear spent years working to make rubber useful for the automobile industry. For more than 10 years, he experimented to make the properties of rubber match the applications they were needed for.

Finally, he tried adding sulphur to natural rubber. This caused a chemical reaction that made rubber more durable, added enhanced heat resistance, raised its melting point, and protected it against other forms of damage as well. Ultimately, this processes was called “vulcanizing” the rubber — and it finally made rubber suitable for tires.

After Goodyear entered the market with vulcanized tires, the doorway was open for design innovation that would make tires safer, more effective, and more efficient for years to come. For half a century after vulcanization revolutionized the industry, tires were typically constructed of an inner tube, which contained the compressed air, and an outer casing that protected it and provided traction. The protective rubber casing was made of many plys comprised of rubber mixed with rubberized cords and fabric for additional strength and support. Following this, Michelin introduced the first steel-belted tire around 1948. This innovation added a belt of steel fabric running the circumference of the tire — resulting in greatly enhanced durability and longevity. While the radial tire was widely adopted in Europe, the cost to change the standard technology was too high for American automakers and tire manufacturers for quite some time. Eventually, tire manufacturers bucked to pressure and invested in the equipment needed to upgrade from bias-belt equipment to radial tire tooling equipment.

Even today, the materials used in tires continue to be improved upon – while their internal design remains relatively the same. With these new materials comes the improved performance, driving speed, and fuel efficiency that drivers continually demand. However, apart from the development of the actual way tires are manufactured — the way they are shaped and contoured has also continually changed, resulting in radically different variations for seasonal and all-season driving.

When buying a tire or even researching tires, you may have heard the phrase “siping” and wondered,”what on earth is siping?”. After years and years of innovation in the way that tires were actually made, it came time to improve how they behaved on the road by delivering better control and traction. This began in 1923,in a slaughterhouse, at the hands of John F. Sipe. If you imagine a 1920′s slaughterhouse, would you picture the floors as white, dry, and easy to stand on? No. Chances are they were the exact opposite: bloody, wet, and constantly slippery. Naturally tired of slipping on blood and animal entrails, Sipe thought to cut grooves into the rubber of his boots, which helped him get much more traction by allowing the liquid to disperse more effectively.

Eventually, Charles Goodyear picked up in this and applied the idea to tire. While tires already had cuts and grooves to help evacuate most of the water, a thin and slick layer of water still remained.

Just like Sipe’s boots, the small cuts added to the tires in addition to the main grooved proved very beneficial when it came to gaining valuable traction after the bulk of water was taken care of. As the car moves, the tire’s sipes expand, creating lower air pressure that sucks water inside. This allows for much greater contact between the tire and the road surface, and has been applied for both all season tires and winter-specific tires.

  Tags: tires
  Posted in: Tires 101