Written by Chris Miller
Amidst the exciting reports of impending missions to mars and electric sports cars, it might seem a little surprising that a new rail system is something getting any news coverage. But the Hyperloop isn’t just any high speed rail system: it’s a really, really fast high speed rail system. Described as the love child of the Concorde, an air hockey table and a rail gun by none other than Silicon Valley superstar-turned-futuristic mad scientist-entrepreneur Elon Musk, the Hyperloop would get passengers from San Francisco to L.A. in 20 minutes, maxing out at top speed of 700 mph. It sounds a little like science fiction, but according to Musk the Hyperloop could represent the “fifth mode” of transportation after ships, trains, planes, and cars (Musk 2013). But the Hyperloop and its component technologies in fact have a long history, deeply tied to previous innovations, in what Brian Arthur describes as the recursive nature of technology (Arthur 2009). Here will explore a few of these antecedents in hopes of identifying what might lead to the success or failure of Musk’s dream.
While the Hyperloop is by no means a proper train, developments in locomotive technology led not-so-directly to its development. So let’s delve back to the early 1800s, when engineering icons like George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were at the forefront of the burgeoning field of steam powered trains. In these early days of the industrial revolution, the coal rich regions of North England provided both the need and the fuel to mechanize long-standing methods of rail-guided carts (Wolmar 2010). Inspired by the potential for massive economic success, the landscape was suddenly lush with engineers and inventors marketing their wares. Based on suggestive writings of English engineer George Medhurst from the turn of the century, a number of individuals including the Samuda brothers and Samuel Clegg (as well as Brunel) had experimented with a system that would utilize a pressurized tube running along the track that would propel the train by means of a specially developed valve and piston in the tube: the “Atmospheric Railway” (Buchanan 2002). This system allowed a single, stationary steam engine to power the carriage throughout the length of the track. Considerable problems arose with maintaining the pressure in the tube, and so as smaller, cheaper, and more powerful steam engines were designed, the locomotive as we know it from tourist attractions and spaghetti Westerns became the norm.
By the middle of the 19th century, the market for more efficient railways had only continued to grow. Rail had been widely adopted as not just a means of freight transport but passenger transport as well, and the individual and cultural significance of the possibilities afforded is hard to overestimate (Schivelbusch 1979). An important exploration into rail advances drew largely from inventions produced by the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company in 1863, a subterranean mail delivery system inspired by the success of Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway (“A Striking Invention,” 1863). Soon after, Thomas Webster Rammell applied the concept of pressurized air-powered capsules to human transport, an idea manifested in his Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway of 1864 (Brown 2013). A contemporary version of this system was described by the New York Times in 1965: a 22 foot diameter fan, powered by a steam engine, which, “by the use of valves, can be used either for blowing the trains through the tubes or literally sucking them back again,” (“Pneumatic Dispatch Railway,” 1865).
Meanwhile in America, the new editor of burgeoning science periodical Scientific American Alfred Ely Beach was studying these developments in England and founded the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company. Beach, himself an inventor, displayed a full-scale model at the American Institute Fair in 1867 with the goal of achieving a city-wide subterranean transit system, a dream he had developed some 30 years prior (“The Secret Subway,” PBS). Despite some political entanglements involving the infamous Boss Tweed, Beach quietly constructed a 300 ft. long track running underneath Broadway in New York City, completed in 1870 (“First Subway Here was Like a Popgun,” 1950). Like its predecessors, Beach’s railway was primarily seen as a novelty, essentially a roller coaster: fast and exciting, but not widely seen as practical. But Beach was determined to scale his invention to serve all of New York City, and he was very nearly successful. Just as Beach’s plans for expansion throughout the city were approved in 1873, predating the development of the modern subway system by some 30 years, a stock market crash caused Beach’s investors to back out and the system was abandoned.
The lack of wide commercial success for these innovations did not discourage pioneers like Brunel, Rammell, and Beach. And although not widely utilized in their time, the lasting significance of their efforts was invaluable; contributions of these innovators to the domain, although seemingly developmental deadends, were influential throughout the 20th century and even to today in the form of the Hyperloop. In part 2, we will examine these more recent developments in the history of rail and rail alternatives.
“Beach Pneumatic Transit 01” by Scientific American, March 5, 1870. (Originally in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 19, 1870.) – . Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beach_Pneumatic_Transit_01.jpg#/media/File:Beach_Pneumatic_Transit_01.jpg