The Hyperloop is all over the news these days, with a new corporation, Hyperloop Technologies, Inc., pledging to make it a radical, big, bold transformative technology for the 21st century. One of the founding directors for the company, Peter Diamond, defines a hyperloop this way:
In 2013, Elon Musk and a group of engineers from Tesla and SpaceX published a speculative design document for a concept they called "The Hyperloop."
Born out of frustration with California's plan for a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco (the slowest and most expensive per mile bullet train around, with an estimated cost of $70 billion), the Hyperloop was to be a high-speed transportation system that could take travelers from San Francisco to LA in 35 minutes for a fraction of the cost.
In other words, it's a "vacuum tube transportation network" that will be able to travel at around 760 mph – on land and under water.
Physics is timeless. As soon as forces were understood, logical, mathematical minds went immediately to the same conclusion. Other transportation corridors have the same problems and the same needs and the same physics apply to them. Pushing a load through a vacuum requires less force than pushing the same load through air. A year before Musk went public, Loz Blain was asking on gizmag.com: Ultra-efficient 4,000 mph vacuum-tube trains – why aren't they being built? He wasn't first. First is only a matter of what is saved and what researchers can find. Two examples are below.
The London and Edinburgh Vacuum Tunnel Company thought through the problem and came up with this solution, before Musk did. Way before Musk did. In 1825. The Northern Looking Glass, of Glasgow, wrote an amazed tribute to the idea in its September 10, 1825 issue. William Heath drew for them the satirical cartoon above, which just as effectively captures today's Hyperloop. More effectively, in fact, because the original proposal was for freight haulage only, in a tube too small for people to even stand up.
The original article appeared in the Edinburgh Star probably in January of that year. That periodical isn't scanned but survives because the attitude toward copyright in 1825 was also remarkably the same as the Internet's today. The London Mechanics Register reprinted the entire article on January 29, 1825. At least they gave proper credit.
More than a decade earlier, before such things as railroads existed, a George Medhurst proposed a similar system to run on iron wheels, then used for short hauls of ore out of mines and other pre-passenger heavy moving. His pamphlet spent a full page on the title, as was the style in 1812. Calculations and Remarks, Tending to Prove the Practicalities, 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. Perhaps Medhurst should have known that what he was suggesting was impossible for the technology of the time. Perhaps the London and Edinburgh Vacuum Tunnel Company should have realized it as well. Musk still has a bevy of doubters, so should he have avoided some of the ridicule heaped upon him? Basic scientific principles stay the same; engineering must leap ahead to apply them to contemporary materials. These unbuilt devices are not quaint; rather they're meaningful steps along a continuous path.