Stephen Mihm: New York Had a Hyperloop First, Elon Musk

tags: Bloomberg News, New York, Stephen Mihm, Elon Musk



Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter

Ah, the “hyperloop.” Elon Musk, whose track record as a technological visionary is unimpeachable, has released details of his plan for a futuristic system of transport. The basic idea is to use air pressure to shoot people-carrying pods through tubes at speeds of up to 760 miles per hour.

With all due respect to Mr. Musk, the idea isn’t new. This has been pointed out by some commentators, who have noted that in 1972 Rand Corporation researcher R. M. Salter released a proposal to ferry passengers from New York to Los Angles in a mere 21 minutes, or 14 minutes less than the hyperloop would take to send them from Los Angeles to San Francisco. But at its heart, Musk’s project is even more old school: It owes most of its inspiration to ideas that have been around for two hundred years.

In 1812, a British inventor named George Medhurst proposed “a plan for the rapid conveyance of goods and passengers … by the power and velocity of air.” The heart of Medhurst’s system was a pneumatic tube, and while the far-out plan went nowhere, subsequent generations of inventors and visionaries eagerly embraced it, experimenting with so-called pneumatic railways -- or “atmospheric railways” -- that promised to carry passengers in carriages shot through airtight tubes....



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