Isambard Kingdom Brunel was and is one of the most celebrated engineers ever to have lived. There’s a London university named after him, statues commemorating him across the UK, and many of the tunnels and bridges he built are still in use today. He designed London’s Paddington station, built the first transatlantic steamship powered by propellers, and was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, which connected the capital to distant parts of England and Wales.
His legacy isn’t just one of achievements, though. He is also renowned for his involvement in one failed project in particular: Brunel’s atmospheric railway (or “caper,” as it’s sometimes called). Cars on the line — officially, the South Devon Railway — had no on-board engines, as they were driven by air pressure alone. But the design of the system was ultimately flawed. Within a year of service starting, atmospheric propulsion on the South Devon Railway was quickly abandoned.
Brunel’s atmospheric railway is notable because of its length and the name attached to it. The famed engineer had nothing to do with the concept itself, however. The story begins as early as the late 1600s with French scholar Denis Papin, who worked on the beginnings of leverging air pressure and steam power.
At the turn of the 19th century, London-based inventor George Medhurst floated the first well-rounded idea of using compressed air as a fuel of sorts, patenting what he called the “Aeolian engine.” Over the next 30 years, he published several manuscriptsoutlining in detail how air pressure could push anything from letters to heavy goods and people through closed systems. He thought passenger trains could either travel inside a large duct, or be pulled by a piston that air could force along a much smaller tube.