Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Atmospheric Railway
ATMOSPHERIC RAILWAY, a railway in which the pressure of air is used directly or indirectly to propel carriages, as a substitute for steam. It was devised at a time when the principles of propulsion were not so well under stood as they are now, and when the dangers and inconveniences attendant on the use of locomotives were very much exaggerated. It had been long known that small objects could be propelled for great distances through tubes by air pressure, but a Mr Vallance, of Brighton, seems to have been the first to propose the application of this system to passenger traffic. He projected (about 1825) an atmospheric railway, consisting of a wooden tube about 6 feet 6 inches in diameter, with a carriage running inside it. A diaphragm fitting the tube, approximately air-tight, was attached to the carriage, and the air exhausted from the front of it by a stationary engine, so that the atmospheric pressure behind drove the carriage forward. Later inventors, commencing with Henry Pinkus (1835), for the most part kept the carriages altogether outside the tube, and connected them by a bar with a piston working inside it, this piston being moved by atmospheric pressure in the way just mentioned. The tube was generally provided with a slot upon its upper side, closed by a continuous valve or its equivalent, and arrangements were made by which this valve should be opened to allow the passage of the driving bar without permitting great leakage of air. About 1840, Messrs Clegg & Samuda made various experiments with an atmospheric tube constructed on this principle upon a portion of the West London Railway, near Wormwood Scrubs. The apparent success of these induced the Dublin and Kingstown Railway to adopt Clegg & Samuda’s scheme upon an extension of their line from Kingstown to Dalkey, where it was in operation in 1844. Later on, the same system was adopted on a part of the South Devon line and in several other places, and during the years 1844–1846 the English and French patent records show a very large number of more or less practicable and ingenious schemes for the tubes, valves, and driving gear of atmospheric railways. The atmospheric system was nowhere permanently successful, but in all cases was eventually superseded by locomotives, the last atmospheric line being probably that at St Germains, which was worked until 1862. Apart from difficulties in connection with the working of the valve, the maintenance of the vacuum, &c., other great practical difficulties, which had not been indicated by the experiments, soon made themselves known in the working of the lines. Above all, it was found that stationary engines, whether hauling a rope or exhausting a tube, could never work a railway with anything like the economy or the convenience of locomotives, a point which is now regarded as settled by engineers, but which was not so thoroughly understood thirty years ago. Lately, the principle of the atmospheric railway has been applied on a very large scale in London and elsewhere, under the name of “Pneumatic Despatch” (q.v.), to the transmission of small parcels in connection with postal and telegraph work, for which purpose it has proved admirably adapted. (See paper by Prof. Sternberg of Carlsruhe in Hensinger von Waldegg s Handbuch für specielle Eisenbahntechnik, vol. i. pt. 2, cap. xvii.