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Retro Fails: 10 Eccentric Transportation Inventions That Didn’t Take Off
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media, 13 February 2015.

The world of transportation has long fascinated mankind. We want to get where we’re going faster, more comfortably, and in greater style – all lofty goals, certainly, but sometimes, when the goals get ahead of the practicality, it can lead to some incredibly ambitious (and sometimes deadly) experiments gone wrong. This article delves into the history of 10 retro fails from the world of vintage transport.

10. The Roper Steam Velocipede

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Image: Gizmag

The idea of a steam-powered bicycle never really took off, but it has been credited as being one of the forerunners of an incredibly popular invention - the motorcycle. It was a long journey from the steam-driven bicycle that first hit the streets in 1869, though.

Invented by Massachusetts creator Sylvester H. Roper, the Roper steam velocipede was the first self-propelled vehicle in existence. Looking basically like a bicycle, it was driven by a boiled and firebox suspended between the two wooden wheels. The rider fed charcoal into the firebox, which heated the steam cylinder and provided the force that would propel the machine. How much force was pushed through the system was controlled by a throttle mounted on the handlebars, along with a braking system. The seat doubled as a water tank, with everything connected by heavy tubing.

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Image: Gizmag

Roper - strangely - never patented his original machine, and he did go on to build a couple more versions of the concept. An employee of the Springfield Armory, he was the inventor of a couple of different steam-powered vehicles, including a steam-driven carriage. In order to try to get his creations to gain popularity, he frequently travelled to fairs and circuses, demonstrating his steam-powered bicycles.

Unfortunately, Roper died in 1896, while demonstrating a newer model of the bicycle. According to newspaper reports, he turned off the steam prematurely, and suffered a fatal heart attack.

9. The De Lacknew Aerocycle

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Image: NYT via The Lively Morgue

Originally, it seemed like it was going to be a win.

The concept of the aerocycle was something like a helicopter, except with the blades on the bottom and the person standing on top - without the protection of a cabin. During the 1950s and 1960s, it was one of the major military campaigns, creating a reliable aerocycle that would be able to be easily piloted by a single individual on recon missions. It could be landed on land or on water, had a hovering capability of 5,000 feet, a top speed of 65 miles per hour, and a range of 15 miles - 50 miles with an auxiliary gas tank.

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Image: army.arch, cc-4.0

There were originally three different prototypes for the idea, and it was the De Lackner that showed the most potential. Piloted by a hand-controlled throttle and steered simply by teaching the pilot to shift his weight correctly, the Army even ordered 12 models be built for extensive testing.

Unfortunately, testing went about as well as you’d imagine. Starting in 1956 and flown by Captain Selmer Sundby, the aerocycles had one major flaw - their blades had a tendency to bend in mid-air. Sunby’s flights - one of which lasted 43 minutes - were somewhat successful, but the aerocycle also proved much, much more difficult to handle than it was originally thought to be.


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Images: US Army (left, right), public domain

Further testing failed to reveal what the problem was with the 15-foot-long blades, and while the aerocycle was eventually scrapped, Sundby earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his unprecedented efforts in testing the bizarre anti-helicopter.

8. The Flying Tank

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Image: via Modern Mechanix

Since their invention, tanks have changed the face of warfare. The difficulty with them, though, is getting them where they need to be quickly and efficiently.

In the 1930s, both the United States and the Soviet Union looked at solving that problem by making tanks that fly. The American version was created by an inventor named Walter Christie, who claimed his creation would put an end to war.

The invention was pretty much a tank with wings, and he said that take-off wasn’t a problem with the addition of pneumatic tires and a new type of caterpillar track that would allow the tank to get up to speeds of 100 miles per hour on a flat, smooth surface. With that solved, it was a simple matter of mathematics to determine just what kind of wings would be needed to get the tank up in the air.

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Image: Tempshill, public domain

The other problem - landing - was also pretty simple to overcome. Wheels would start turning the track while the tank was already in the air, at a speed that would match the machine’s forward air speed. Then, it was just a matter of the pilot/driver touching down, with the added advantage of being an incredibly hard-to-hit target, already doing 100 miles per hour.

Christie’s model was just one of those that were attempted and experimented with, but eventually, the technology of the day couldn’t deliver everything that was needed to keep the tanks in the air and to keep them making the transition from ground to air and back again. By the time materials caught up with the idea, it was found that it was just as easy to airlift tanks into place.

7. The Spherical Velocipede

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Image: via Google Books

The Spherical Velocipede sounds impressive, and looks a little ridiculous.

The entire thing is basically a transparent ball, with a seat inside. The seat is connected to either side of the ball and allowed to pivot. Rather than pedalling like you would a bicycle, the rider simply braces himself against the wall and walks - making the only difference between this invention and a hamster ball being the seat.

It’s said to be steered simply by leaning in the direction you want to go, and, of course, the faster you walk the faster the ball will spin around you.

In an advertisement from 1884, it’s suggested that it’s potentially not only good for on land, but for water, too. The obvious problem would be in making the ball waterproof, but with the size it would need to be to comfortably fit an adult human, air supply also wouldn’t be a problem.

6. Bennie the Railplane

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As weird as it sounds, Bennie the Railplane was exactly that - an airplane that ran on rails. In 1921, George Bennie began developing what he believe would revolutionize travel and ultimately be capable of allowing people to travel from Edinburgh to Glasgow in 20 minutes - as long as it could run in a straight line.

Since he didn’t actually have any engineering qualifications or skills whatsoever, he had to hire someone to help him get the project off the ground.

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The plane would be suspended from an overhead rail, which could be added on to train rails that were already in existence. Most of the weight would be supported from overhead, while a lower guide track would help stabilize the plane. When going through curves at high speeds, there was also the problem of sway, which would be helped by the lower rail. The power would be supplied by a diesel engines and propellers, with the added benefit of propellers that could easily be swapped out. Different propellers meant that the same car was capable of different speeds, and the same one that could be used for cross-country travel could also be easily adapted to city use.

Railplanes could (theoretically) travel at up to 200 miles per hour, and, unlike traditional trains, stopping it would mean simply using the braking mechanisms - which could be done without shutting everything down.

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In order to try to get support for the project, they built a quarter-mile test track in Milngavie; in spite of having every luxury of the day, no one came forward to back the project, and it fell by the wayside. All their claims were, of course, in theory, and in the end, no one was interested.

Undeterred, Bennie attempted to found several other transportation companies, but those, too, ultimately failed and he retired from the world of transportation to run an herb shop.

5. The Gyroscopic Monorail

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Image: via Atomic Toasters

In 1907, Louis Brennan debuted a revolutionary - and absolutely terrifying - new train.

Unlike traditional trains, his gyroscopic monorail had four wheels set in a single line, riding on a single rail. Capable of coming to a complete stop and somehow remaining upright - even resisting tipping when pushed - the monorail was stabilized by two spinning gyroscopes that were always running, even when the train was stopped. Powered by an electric motor, the gyroscopes were constantly making adjustments for the balance of the train car, allowing it to remain still just as easily at it zoomed around corners.

And zoom it was designed to do - it was estimated that full-size models would be twice as fast as traditional trains.

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Image: Illiana Garden Railway Society, public domain

The only gyroscopic monorails ever built were two prototypes - one was exhibited at the Japan-British Exhibition at the White City in 1910, when Winston Churchill took a ride around the track and was considerably impressed by it. The press also loved it - and Brennan had his track record going for him. He was already well-known in the inventing world, having masterminded some of the key components of Britain’s coast defense network.

The gyroscopic monorail, however, was not to be as successful - in part because war was looming, and with World War I eminent, reworking the entirety of London’s mass transit system was far from top priority. The prototypes were eventually sold, one as scrap and one re-purposed into a park shelter.

4. AVE Mizar

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Image: Doug Duncan, cc-sa-3.0

The AVE Mizar was the brainchild of Henry Smolinski, an ambitious inventor who was trying not only to create the first flying car, but a flying car that was convenient.

The idea was that, for most of the time, it was a car. It was a Ford Pinto, to be precise. For long-distance travel, though, the driver could head over to the airport, fit the car to a waiting frame, and take off from the runway. Once the driver-pilot reached their destination, they would land, unhook the car, and drive off.

It would have been the best of both worlds, but, not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Not only did it not work, but it failed both spectacularly and tragically.

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Image: via SmugMug

The back half of the vehicle that would have been the part capable of flight was part of a Cessna Skymaster. The front part of the plane was removed, and the Pinto was fitted to play the role of both car and cockpit. Pedals to control the rudder and steering of the plane were installed in the car, along with all the flight controls that were removed from the plane. In a perfect world, Smolinski calculated that the Mizar would be capable of flying to a height of 12,000 feet for a distance of about 1,000 miles.

Several different prototypes were shown, with the inventors wowing the crowd with not only the idea, but how easy it would be to operate. (So easy, even a woman can do it!) But in 1973 when prototypes were finally taken to the air, it wasn’t long before tragedy led to the abandonment of the entire project. On September 11, 1973, Smolinski himself, along with his partner, Hal Blake, took the Mizar for a test flight. The craft collapsed in mid-air, killing both men inside.

3. David Bushnell’s Turtle

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This one walks the line between a complete failure and a complete success. On one hand, the Turtle never succeeded in doing what it meant to do. On the other hand, though, it didn’t end in fireworks and death, either.

In the years during the American Revolution, Yale student David Bushnell was hard at work designing what he knew would be a weapon that would give the colonists a massive edge over the British fleet. Called the Turtle, his craft was designed to be able to hold one occupant, submerge beneath the water, move backward and forward, and be able to attach an underwater mine to the hull of an unsuspecting warship.

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Image: Geni, cc-sa-4.0

Credited as being the first working submarine, the entire craft was made of oak and powered in much the same way as a bicycle was. Raising and lowering the craft was done by flooding or emptying a chamber with water, requiring a pretty advanced system of valves, pumps, propellers and hatches.

The mine was just as ambitious. It had to be big enough to blow a hole in a ship’s hull, otherwise the whole thing was for nothing. The mine he eventually designed held 150 pounds of gunpowder, and was attached to the enemy ship by operating a hand crank from inside. A clockwork timing device and a musket flint would provide the spark needed for ignition.

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Image: Farnham Bishop; Henry Howe; public domain

The Turtle was put into action in June of 1776, deployed against a fleet of British ships that were making landfall with thousands of fresh troops. In its first run, its operator found it impossible to attach the mine to the ship, and eventually retreated back to land after being spotted by the British. There was another unsuccessful attempt, and eventually the Turtle was discovered and sank.

The little submarine was recovered, but by then, Bushnell’s health was failing. While he did attempt to design a couple of different mine systems for the Turtle, it wasn’t put back into action and there was never actually a successful mission run from it. But, it is extraordinary at the time for its revolutionary ideas, and while it was itself a fail, it went on to inspire other crafts that would change the face of warfare.

2. The Bicycle Railroad

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Image: Randal J. , cc-sa-4.0

In the late 1800s, a bizarre new railway opened between the New Jersey towns of Smithville and Mount Holly. Almost 2 miles in length, the track was a single rail that ran along the top of a fence. It was ridden by a bicycle - turned upside-down so the rider was sitting on a saddle with a wheel in front of him and one in back. The bicycle was pedalled in much the same way a regular bicycle was, only it ran along the top of the fence.

Making its debut during a local fair, the bicycle railway was a huge hit, with people queuing for hours just to get the chance to ride on it. With bicycles of the time being pretty ungainly and requiring quite a bit of practice to get the hang of, the bicycle railway was, by comparison, not only easy but ridiculously fun.

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Image: Quazoo

The railway’s inventor, Arthur Hotchkiss, was convinced that his bicycle railway was going to be the next big thing in transportation. He toured fairs and expositions in an attempt to get people to purchase franchise opportunities in his company, but had no success in branching out. It’s not really surprising, given the drawbacks that there were to the railway. According to newspaper reports, since there was only one track and people going in two different directions, that meant people who met on the way needed to remove one of the bicycles from the track and refit it on the opposite side in order to keep going.

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There was also the problem of gates…and the papers warn that riders need to be careful and always keep an eye out on the track ahead, in case someone’s left their gate open and broken up the track.

1. Beach’s Pneumatic Underground Railway

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Image: Scientific American, public domain

At the turn of the 20th century, inventor (and Scientific American editor) Alfred Ely Beach was determined to change the face of inner-city travel forever - and he knew exactly how he was going to do it.

England had been experimenting with the idea of pneumatics to deliver messages through tubes for some time. Starting around 1853, the Electric and International Telegraph Company linked itself, via pneumatic tube, to the London Stock Exchange. It was a pretty impressive success, although it had limited applications - if the tube needed to go too far, the cost overrode the usefulness of the idea.

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Beach thought he could take the same principles and apply them on a much, much larger scale. He petitioned the New York City government to allow him to dig a tunnel under the city, for his pneumatic transit system, which he’d already debuted at the American Institute Fair. He was denied permission, but because he was a turn-of-the-century American with a plan, he decided to do it anyway.

In 58 days, he successfully dug a tunnel, large enough for his transit system, between Warren Street and Murray Street - right in front of City Hall.

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Image: Scientific American, public domain

Between 1870 and 1873, the system was fully operating, although mainly as a demonstration that the theory was sound and as a curiosity. There was only one station and one car, and was eventually scrapped before it could even be determined whether or not it was a practical idea to be done on a bigger scale. In 1912, the competitor - the electric locomotive - officially surpassed the plans of the idealistic inventor, and took over the tunnel he’d dug and the single car.

Top image: The 1894 Roper Steam Velocipede. Photo: Paul Eddy via Gizmag.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]

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