Sipes in the tread of the Bridgestone Blizzak DM-Z3; photo by James Bergeron. Click image to enlarge
By Paul Williams
If you read about the latest generation of tires — especially winter tires like the Michelin X-Ice, Pirelli SnowSport and Bridgestone Blizzak — you’ll find that they use sophisticated rubber compounds, computer generated tread patterns and sipes to maximize traction.
Sipes? These are tiny cuts in the tire that create small blocks of rubber, enabling the tread to flex and squeeze against the road surface, almost like a sponge. As you can imagine, “siping” a tire increases its ability to grip the road as it rotates.
The thing about sipes, though, is that many sources attest their invention to a gentleman named John Sipe, from whose name the term is apparently derived. Check online and you’ll see that John Sipe has become quite famous for this.
Here’s a typical example: Back near the dawn of the automotive era, a boater by the name of John Sipe was looking for a way to make his deck shoes more slip-resistant on wet boat decks. He came across the idea of cutting parallel slits in the rubber soles. He tried it and it worked! One thing led to another and the use of “Siping” for automobile tires soon caught on, says 4Crawler.com.
You know, when I first heard that story, I thought it sounded a little suspicious, mainly because I was sure that the terms “sipe” and “siping” predated Mr. Sipe. Nonetheless, Wikipedia repeats the story, or at least, one version of it: Siping was invented and patented by John Sipe in the 1920s. Sipe worked in a slaughterhouse, and grew tired of slipping on the wet floors. He found that cutting slits in the tread on the bottoms of his shoes provided better traction than the uncut tread, says Wikipedia.org.
Hmmm. Mr. Sipe worked in an abattoir, and boated for relaxation.
Furthermore, Sipers.com says the process of siping was first patented in the 1920s by a slaughterhouse employee named John Sipe, who made a series of small cuts in his shoes to give him better traction on the slaughter (sic) floor.
Not only was Mr. Sipe a boating slaughterhouse worker, he was an entrepreneur as well, actually patenting the process he named after himself!
Here’s more: “As for the history behind siping,” says 4x4review.com, “the process has been around since the 1920’s and was developed by a guy named John Sipe (go figure).”
Go figure, indeed. As you might expect, there’s a bit more to the story.
The word “sipe” has been around for hundreds of years. Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) defines it as, “To run or soak through fine pores and interstices; to ooze.”
Note that this definition is from 1913, which means the word was in use well before this dictionary was published (and well before the 1920s, when John Sipe was supposedly slipping and sliding around). Consider also the similarity between the word “sipe” and “seep.”
If you check www.etymonline.com (which specializes in the origin of words) and www.dictionary.com (Random House) you’ll find that “seep” is in fact a variant of “sipe,” and that it dates back to 1503; possibly, they report, way back to the year 900, and to the Old English sipian, “to seep,” and Germanic sip, “to ooze.”
Check the Dictionary of English Dialect (1904) and you’ll find a long entry for “sipe,” beginning with its use as a “ditch, or channel.” Also,”to leak, to ooze, to drain out slowly through a small crevice (1825) and “to sipe out of the way, or drain of moisture.”
In short, siping has to do with water and its propensity to squeeze through small cracks or crevices, which is exactly what siping tires is supposed to do (at least, on wet or slippery road surfaces). So where does this leave John Sipe?
Well, he really did patent a tire manufacturing process, “To improve at relatively low cost the cushioning, gripping and tractive qualities of a tire, while at the same time increasing its strength and wearing.” His boating and slaughterhouse exploits are debateable, but this New Yorker certainly filed patents relevant to tires.
Specifically, U.S. Patents 1,452,099 (submitted in 1920 and granted in 1923), and 1,455,361 (submitted and granted in 1923) propose methods of constructing solid rubber tires with “incisions and cuts,” thus creating blocks, or sections, in the tread. The incisions were designed to reduce heat build-up in the tire, improve ride comfort and increase traction (don’t forget; the tires he had in mind were solid rubber, not pneumatic).
Mr. Sipe doesn’t refer to these incisions as “sipes,” however, or the process as “siping,” and it may not have occurred to him to do so.
Nonetheless, was his patent widely known? Did others use it as the inspiration to “sipe” tires? Maybe not right away (solid tires were on their way out when Mr. Sipe patented his process). But check U.S. Patent 2727639, which is a 1955 patent for a tire siping machine, and you’ll encounter the following sentence:
“Such cuts have become known as “sipes,” the word being derived from an earlier patent, No. 1,452,099, of which J.F. Sipe was the patentee.”
So we know that by the early 1950s, at least, incisions in tires were called sipes, and John Sipe was believed to be the originator of the process.
But Sipe’s patent is more about tire manufacturing and the cuts and incisions that were part of that specific process (although adding grooves to tires was not new. In 1908, Frank Seiberling invented — or maybe refined — grooved tires).
As for the boater who siped his shoes, this story is almost certainly confusing John Sipe with Paul Sperry, an avid sailor and “hobbyist inventor” whose idea for cutting incisions in running shoes was refined and applied to a range of shoes, most notably the Sperry Top-Sider, versions of which are still in production. Mr. Sperry’ patent for a non-slip shoe sole was granted in 1940 (U.S. 2,206,860).
John Sipe as an abattoir worker? I’ve found no corrorboration for that, but was unable to find anything specifically about Mr. Sipe, other than the patents he filed.
In conclusion, siping refers to cracks and crevices through which water can squeeze, ooze or seep, hence its use in a range of manufacturing processes including those for tires and shoes.
And yes, in the 1920s, John Sipe patented a manufacturing process for tires that included incising them. But I would suggest he didn’t invent what are now called “sipes.”
Personally, I think this is a task for the PBS series, “The History Detectives.” Maybe they can conclusively determine whether the small tire incisions we now know as “sipes,” are so called because of John Sipe and his patented manufacturing process.