Updated: Mar 2
Imagine the scene.
The audience of pioneers and press is gathered to watch, and the engineers and technicians prepare the pod for the two first-ever passengers. The vacuum tube is sealed and the pressure is double-checked. After years of planning and refining, blueprinting and prototyping, the high-speed transportation system is finally ready to be fully-tested.
But this day is not the eighth of November, 2020, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop is nowhere to be seen.
It’s 1824, and the Vallance pneumatic railway is about to be sent on it’s inaugural journey.
And, Valance wasn’t even the first to design a vacuum tubed mode of transport. That achievement of modern innovation is held by George Medhurst, who designed the prototype over one-hundred-and-fifty years before Richard Charles Nicholas Branson was born, and over one-hundred-and-seventy before Elon Reeve Musk was even a twinkle.
In 1800, Medhurst, a mechanical engineer from Kent, in the UK, who trained as a clockmaker in Georgian London, where clocks were at the forefront of technology, filed his patent for the ‘Aeolian’, which used compressed air to power a train-like vehicle.
Named after the Greek god of wind, he wrote extensively in his work, ‘On the properties, power, & application of the Aeolian engine, with a plan and particulars for carrying it into execution’, of a people-carrying service, operated by strategically-placed compression stations which shot passenger-filled capsules along the route.
And, in 1812, as President James Madison was declaring war on the United Kingdom, which no side ever won, Medhurst further wrote his ‘Calculations and remarks tending to prove the practicability, effects and advantages of a plan for the rapid conveyance of goods and passengers upon an iron road through a tube of 30 feet in area by the power and velocity of air’, a catchy title for sure. These early thoughts and his later work were the catalyst for the development of the atmospheric railway, which used sub-rail air pressure to propel a coach-like pod along.
Neither Medhurst’s Aeolian nor Valance’s pneumatic were considered worthy of commercial development, and they were both sent away in a somewhat derisory manner.
Unlike today's Hyperloop, there was no magnetic levitation involved, because for that we needed to wait to1913, when the French inventor Emile Bachelet grabbed the patent for his Levitating Transmitting Apparatus, which would carry items - mail and parcels mainly - in a capsule levitated above a magnetic trackway. His prototype was called the ‘flying train’ by the press, and was the very first example of a magnetically-levitated railway. He even presented a meter-long levitating rod, which the Admiralty, as we’ve come to expect with new innovation that they don’t actually develop themselves, declined to show interest in, and Bachelet went off to wire a plug instead.
You couldn’t sit inside Bachelet’s pod, of course, but you could in Medhurst's, although it had no seat belts, or ergonomic chairs, or even windows.
For seat belts, we’d need to look to the Yorkshireman, Sir George Cayley, who invented them around the turn of the nineteenth century. Cayley also invented self-righting lifeboats, automatic railway crossing signals, aerial drones, and a unique internal combustion engine, as well as contributing hugely to the evolution of the prosthetics, electricity, and optics fields. Seat belts however, weren’t actually used immediately after their invention, and so lingered in the conceptual form for quite some time
For an ergonomic riding position we’d need the Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzębowski, who coined the phrase in 1857, in his article on the ‘Outline of Ergonomics; Science of Work, Based on the Truths Taken from the Natural Science’. One of the earliest evolutions of the chair, making it more in-tune with our bodys' needs rather than that of the prevailing styles, like those proposed in Thomas Chippendale’s ‘The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director’, or to match the properties of the available materials, came from the 19th century Naturalist Charles Robert Darwin, who took it upon himself to attach wheels to his study chair so he could zip around his office in a flash. Even so, ergonomics only began to get the attention it deserved in the nineteen-seventies, an era that first made the idea central to design.
And for windows, we of course need the Romans, who began glazing their openings around one-hundred CE, in Alexandria in Egypt, though windows continued to be unglazed for many centuries after that.
So, while we should indeed celebrate the successful first run of Virgin’s Hyperloop, which will carry us forward by 2025, without wasting billions on old-fashioned high-speed train routes and reducing environmental damage considerably, we should probably spare a thought for Vallance and Medhurst, Bachelet and Cayley, Jastrzębowski and the Romans, who all contributed their loopy ideas to our hyper-loopy future.