Robert's father gave him a workshop and by the time he was 17 years old he had rebuilt his mother's tangle so that wet linen could be passed through the rollers in either direction, had successfully designed and built a ribbon saw, and had completed the first working model of his elliptic rotary steam engine which he was to perfect in later life. He served an engineering apprenticeship in Aberdeen and Dundee before joining a civil engineering company in Glasgow. He then went to work for an Edinburgh firm of civil engineers where he devised a new method of detonating explosive charges by the use of electricity, thus greatly reducing the loss of lives in mines throughout the world. Thomson next worked as a railway engineer and supervised the blasting of chalk cliffs near Dover for the South Eastern Railway. Soon he set up his own railway consultancy business and proposed the line for the Eastern Counties railway which was accepted by parliament and eventually developed.
Thomson was only 23 years old when he patented the pneumatic tyre he was granted a patent in France in1846 and in the USA in 1847. His tyre consisted of a hollow belt of India-rubber inflated with air so that the wheels presented "a cushion of a to the ground, rail or track on which they run". This elastic belt of rubberised canvas was enclosed within a strong outer casing of leather which was bolted to the wheel. Thomson's "Aerial Wheels" were demonstrated in London's Regent Park in March 1847 and were fitted to several horse-drawn carriages, greatly improving the comfort of travel and reducing noise. One set ran for 1200 miles without sign of deterioration. However, despite satisfactory testing the tyre developed further at this time because the North British Rubber Company was unable to supply the strong thin rubber necessary for the inner tubes. For many years Thomson was frustrated by this lack of thin rubber and he turned to the development of his solid rubber tyres. It was not until 43 years later that the pneumatic tyre returned when it was developed as a bicycle tyre by John Boyd Dunlop. Dunlop was granted a patent in 1888 but two years later was officially informed that it was invalid as Thomsons patent preceded it.
At the Great Exhibition in 1851 Thomson demonstrated his self-filling fountain pen and also an invalid chair with solid rubber tyres. The following year he accepted a post in Java, where he designed new machinery for the production of sugar, thus greatly increasing profitability. During this time he invented the first portable steam crane but did not bother to patent it. Whilst in Java he married Clara Hertz, a clever and charming Bohemian lady who was a continuing source of support and encouragement to him the remainder of his life. They had two sons and two daughters, all of whom achieved distinction in different fields but who died without heirs.
Robert and Clara returned to Scotland in 1862. Despite ill health, which latterly confined him to a couch, Thomson's genius was undiminished and some of his most significant work was done during the following ten years. In 1867 he patented solid India-rubber tyres for his road steamers. The Scotsman described this application of vulcanised India-rubber to the wheels of road steamers as "the greatest step which had ever been made in the use of steam on common roads". The resilience of the stout rubber tyres allowed his lightweight five ton steam engine to run on hard or soft, wet or dry surfaces, over obstacles, uphill or downhill. In addition, the thick rubber tyres did not damage the roads as did the iron wheels of heavy traction engines. Thomson's first road steamers, manufactured by Tennants of Leith, were fitted with three wheels, the small single wheel at the front being directly below the steering wheel. The tyres, which were 125 mm (5") thick, were corrugated and adhered to the wheel by friction.
Thomson's road steamers, often drawing four fully loaded coal wagons totalling 40 tons up and down steep gradients, excited great interest in the streets of Edinburgh. Soon the first omnibus was in service between Edinburgh and Leith. Engines were exported to Java, India and Brazil, and by 1870 were being manufactured under licence in both Britain and the USA. Demonstrations of the engine's ability to plough effortlessly with two double-furrow ploughs had a major impact on farming practices and led to the eventual demise of the working farm horse.
R. W. Thomson, the versatile genius, died at his home in Moray Place, Edinburgh, aged 50. His mind was active to the end and his last patent, for elastic belts, seats and cushions, was filed after his death by his wife, Clara.
His Patents and developments:
Writing and drawing instruments (the self-filling pen).
Improvements in obtaining and applying motive power.
Dividing hard substances. such as rock. stone and coal.
Improvements in steam gauges.
Applying steam power in cultivating land.
Elastic wheel tyres.
Guiding road streamers on street tramways.
Elastic wheel tyres.
Elastic beds. seats and other supports or cushions.