Why you should care
Because Elon Musk isn’t history’s first transportation visionary.
When billionaire inventor Elon Musk announced his vision for a space-age system of solar-powered passenger pods propelled through vacuum tubes at supersonic speeds, he wasn’t shy about its potential, calling it the “fifth mode of transport” after road, rail, sea and air. The Hyperloop, which he claims is a “cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table,” could make the 350-mile journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes, according to preliminary designs. But it’s not the world’s first transportation system based on vacuum tubes and pneumatic suction — a concept that stretches back to Victorian Britain.
The most high-profile “atmospheric railway” was built by legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the veritable Musk of his day. Admittedly, there were no solar panels or supersonic speeds in sight, but the system that ran on Brunel’s roughly 20-mile section of track between Exeter and Newton Abbot in southwest England relied upon a vacuum tube to propel trains at a peak speed of 70 miles per hour (as fast as the best steam trains then). At first glance, it didn’t look that different from traditional trains, except there was no steam locomotive — instead, there was “a great big pipe in the middle of the track” providing the propulsion, explains Robin Jones, editor of Heritage Railway magazine. The train was connected to a plunger, which was sucked along the pipe by a vacuum created through several huge pumping stations along the track. “They were driverless trains; you only had a brakeman,” says Jones, and after shipping its first passengers in September 1847, “all went well — the trains ran.” That is, until September of the following year, when technical difficulties bedeviling the system proved insurmountable, and it was abandoned.
Shareholders of the rail company eventually lost half a million pounds on the venture, quite the sum in the mid-19th century.
“There are parallels” to the Hyperloop, says Colin Divall, professor of railway studies at the University of York, but of course “there are also quite significant differences.” Crucially, the vacuum tube was the form of propulsion in Brunel’s railway, while for Musk the passenger pods are themselves inside the tube, with the vacuum only serving to reduce air resistance. In fact, another Victorian experiment, the Crystal Palace pneumatic railway in south London in the 1860s, looked more similar to the modern Hyperloop, with huge fans that would blow and suck wagons along an air-tight tunnel, but the 600-yard track was little more than a proof of concept.
Atmospheric railways were “a reaction to the limitations that some engineers perceived in steam locomotion,” says Divall. Less than two decades after Robert Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive heralded the dawn of steam rail travel in 1829, steam engines still struggled to get up gradients above one in 100. The world’s first functioning atmospheric railway was built on a short section of extremely steep track in Ireland in 1843, and short sections of atmospheric rail were installed in uphill sections of suburban transportation systems in Paris and London, but none of them compare to the ambition of Brunel’s mainline project. After visiting the Irish system, Brunel was smitten and convinced the South Devon Railway Company to let him install the technology on the hilly coastal route in southern England. He was originally commissioned to build pipes to suck trains all the way from Exeter to Plymouth — a 50-mile route — but his system never even made it halfway. Shareholders of the rail company eventually lost half a million pounds on the venture, quite the sum in the mid-19th century.
Brunel “was defeated by the science of materials,” says Bob Gwynne, associate curator of the U.K.’s National Rail Museum. Before the invention of modern plastics and petroleum-based lubricants, the valves necessary to maintain air pressure were made of leather coated in whale oil, which proved vulnerable to the harsh coastal environment and hungry rats. Others are less charitable. “It was bonkers!” says Brunel biographer Adrian Vaughan. The system was unable to reverse, and because it had just one source of power, its top speed dropped as the load increased. The pumping stations were so costly that the system was built with just a single track, but the huge vacuum pipe made it difficult for trains running in opposite directions to pass. Brunel persevered with the system despite the scorn of other leading engineers, which was simply “pigheaded stubbornness,” says Vaughan.
Brunel, despite his legendary reputation as one of the greatest figures of the industrial revolution, was more blue-sky visionary than pragmatic engineer, says Divall. He also insisted on laying railways with a nonstandard seven-foot broad gauge (the distance between the tracks), which — despite their arguable superiority — were replaced by the end of the 19th century in order to unify the national network. The takeaway for Hyperloop enthusiasts? Potentially disruptive transportation technologies can fail when they are not compatible with existing infrastructure. “To grow beyond merely a niche,” says Divall, “it either has to find a way of becoming compatible with existing modes of transport or it has to demonstrate advantages which are so huge that the massive cost of the new infrastructure network can be justified.” Musk, in other words, has his work cut out for him.
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