THE BRENNAN MONORAIL CAR
From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART II
BY PERCEVAL GIBBON
It was November 10, 1909--a day that will surely have its place in
history beside that other day, eighty-five years ago, when George
Stephenson drove the first railway locomotive between Stockton and
Darlington. In the great square of the Brennan torpedo factory at
Gillingham, where the fighting-tops of battleships in the adjacent
dockyard poise above the stone coping of the wall, there was a track
laid down in a circle of a quarter of a mile. Switches linked it up with
other lengths of track, a straight stretch down to a muddy cape of the
Medway estuary, and a string of curves and loops coiling among the
stone and iron factory sheds. The strange thing about it was that it was
single--just one line of rail on sleepers tamped into the unstable
"made" ground of the place.
And there was Brennan, his face red with the chill wind sweeping in from
the Nore, his voice plaintive and Irish, discoursing, at slow length, of
revolutions per minute, of "precession," and the like. The journalists
from London, who had come down at his invitation, fidgeted and shivered
in the bitter morning air; the affair did not look in the least like an
epoch in the history of transportation and civilization, till--
"Now, gentlemen," said Brennan, and led the way across the circle of
And then, from its home behind the low, powder-magazine-like sheds,
there rode forth a strange car, the like of which was never seen before.
It was painted the businesslike slatyblue gray of the War Department. It
was merely a flat platform, ten feet wide by forty feet long, with a
steel cab mounted on its forward end, through the windows of which one
could see a young engineer in tweeds standing against a blur of moving
It ran on the single rail; its four wheels revolved in a line, one
behind another; and it traveled with the level, flexible equilibrium of
a ship moving across a dock. It swung over the sharp curves without
faltering, crossed the switch, and floated--floated is the only word for
the serene and equable quality of its movement--round and round the
quarter-mile circle. A workman boarded it as it passed him, and sat on
the edge with his legs swinging, and its level was unaltered. It was
wonderful beyond words to see. It seemed to abolish the very principle
of gravitation; it contradicted calmly one's most familiar instincts.
Every one knows the sense one gains at times while watching an ingenious
machine at its work--a sense of being in the presence of a living and
conscious thing, with more than the industry, the pertinacity, the
dexterity, of a man. There was a moment, while watching Brennan's car,
when one had to summon an effort of reason to do away with this sense of
life; it answered each movement of the men on board and each inequality
in the makeshift track with an adjustment of balance irresistibly
suggestive of consciousness. It was an illustration of that troublous
theorem which advances that consciousness is no more than the
co-relation of the parts of the brain, and that a machine adapted to its
work is as conscious in its own sphere as a mind is in its sphere.
The car backed round the track, crossed to the straight line, and
halted to take us aboard. There were about forty of us, yet it took up
our unequally distributed weight without disturbance. The young engineer
threw over his lever, and we ran down the line. The movement was as
"sweet" and equable as the movement of a powerful automobile running
slowly on a smooth road; there was an utter absence of those jars and
small lateral shocks that are inseparable from a car running on a double
track. We passed beyond the sheds and slid along a narrow spit of land
thrusting out into the mud-flanked estuary. Men on lighters and a
working-party of bluejackets turned to stare at the incredible machine
with its load. Then back again, three times round the circle, and in and
out among the curves, always with that unchanging stateliness of gait.
As we spun round the circle, she leaned inward like a cyclist against
the centrifugal pull. She needs no banking of the track to keep her on
the rail. A line of rails to travel on, and ground that will carry her
weight--she asks no more. With these and a clear road ahead, she is to
abolish distance and revise the world's schedules of time.
"A hundred and twenty miles an hour," I hear Brennan saying, in that sad
voice of his; "or maybe two hundred. That's a detail."
In the back of the cab were broad unglazed windows, through which one
could watch the tangle of machinery. Dynamos are bolted to the floor,
purring under their shields like comfortable cats; abaft of them a
twenty-horse-power Wolseley petrol-engine supplies motive power for
everything. And above the dynamos, cased in studded leather, swinging a
little in their ordered precession, are the two gyroscopes, the soul of
the machine. To them she owes her equilibrium.
Of all machines in the world, the gyroscope is the simplest, for, in its
essential form, it is no more than a wheel revolving. But a wheel
revolving is the vehicle of many physical principles, and the sum of
them is that which is known as gyroscopic action. It is seen in the
ordinary spinning top, which stands erect in its capacity of a gyroscope
revolving horizontally. The apparatus that holds Brennan's car upright,
and promises to revolutionize transportation, is a top adapted to a new
purpose. It is a gyroscope revolving in a perpendicular plane, a steel
wheel weighing three quarters of a ton and spinning at the rate of three
thousand revolutions to the minute.
Now, the effect of gyroscopic action is to resist any impulse that
tends to move the revolving wheel out of the plane in which it revolves.
This resistance can be felt in a top; it can be felt much more strongly
in the beautiful little gyroscopes of brass and steel that are sold for
the scientific demonstration of the laws governing revolving bodies.
Such a one, only a few inches in size, will develop a surprising
resistance. This resistance increases with the weight of the wheel and
the speed at which it moves, till, with Brennan's gyroscopes of three
quarters of a ton each, whirling in a vacuum at three thousand
revolutions per minute, it would need a weight that would crush the car
into the ground to throw them from their upright plane.
Readers of MCCLURE'S MAGAZINE were made familiar with the working of
Brennan's gyroscope by Mr. Cleveland Moffett's article in the issue of
December, 1907. The occasion of that article was the exhibition of
Brennan's model mono-rail car before the Royal Society and in the
grounds of his residence at Gillingham. For a clear understanding of the
first full-sized car, it may be well to recapitulate a few of the
characteristics of the gyroscope.
When Brennan made his early models, he found that, while the little cars
would remain upright and run along a straight rail, they left the track
at the first curve. The gyroscope governed their direction as well as
their equilibrium. It was the first check in the evolution of the
perfect machine. It was over ten years before he found the answer to the
problem--ten years of making experimental machines and scrapping them,
of filing useless patents, of doubt and persistence. But the answer was
found--in the spinning top.
A spinning top set down so that it stands at an angle to the floor will
right itself; it will rise till it stands upright on the point of equal
friction. Brennan's resource, therefore, was to treat his gyroscope as a
top. He enclosed it in a case, through which its axles projected, and at
each side of the car he built stout brackets reaching forth a few inches
below each end of the axle.
The result is not difficult to deduce. When the car came to a curve, the
centrifugal action tended to throw it outward; the side of the car that
was on the inside of the curve swung up and the bracket touched the axle
of the gyroscope. Forthwith, in the manner of its father, the top, the
gyroscope tried to stand upright on the bracket; all the weight of it
and all its wonderful force were pressed on that side of the car,
holding it down against the tendency to rise and capsize. The thing was
done; the spinning top had come to the rescue of its posterity. It only
remained to fit a double gyroscope, with the wheels revolving in
opposite directions, and, save for engineering details, the mono-rail
car was evolved.
Through the window in the back of the cab I was able to watch them at
then; work--not the actual gyroscopes, but their cases, quivering with
the unimaginable velocity of the great wheels within, turning and
tilting accurately to each shifting weight as the men on board moved
here and there. Above them were the glass oilcups, with the opal-green
engine-oil flushing through them to feed the bearings. Lubrication is a
vital part of the machine. Let that fail, and the axles, grinding and
red-hot, would eat through the white metal of the bearings as a knife
goes through butter. It is a thing that has been foreseen by the
inventor: to the lubricating apparatus is affixed a danger signal that
would instantly warn the engineer.
"But," says Brennan, "if one broke down, the other gyroscope would hold
her up--till ye could run her to a siding, anyway."
"But supposing the electric apparatus failed?" suggests a reporter--with
visions of headlines, perhaps. "Supposing the motor driving the
gyroscopes broke down; what then?"
"They'd run for a couple of days, with the momentum they've got,"
answers the inventor. "And for two or three hours, that 'ud keep her
upright by itself."
On the short track at Gillingham there are no gradients to show what the
car can do in the way of climbing, but here again the inventor is
positive. She will run up a slope as steep as one in six, he says. There
is no reason to doubt him; the five-foot model that he used to exhibit
could climb much steeper inclines, run along a rope stretched six feet
above the ground, or remain at rest upon it while the rope was swung to
and fro. It would do all these things while carrying a man; and, for my
part, I am willing to take Brennan's word.
Louis Brennan himself was by no means the least interesting feature of
the demonstration. He has none of the look of the visionary, this man
who has gone to war with time and space; neither had George Stephenson.
He is short and thick-set, with a full face, a heavy moustache hiding
his mouth, and heavy eyebrows. He is troubled a little with asthma,
which makes him somewhat staccato and breathless in speech, and perhaps
also accentuates the peculiar plaintive quality of his Irish voice.
There is nothing in his appearance to indicate whether he is thirty-five
or fifty-five. As a matter of fact, he is two years over the latter
age, but a man ripe in life, with that persistence and belief in his
work which is to engineers what passion is to a poet.
The technicalities of steel and iron come easily off his tongue; they
are his native speech, in which he expresses himself most intimately.
All his life he has been concerned with machines. He is the inventor of
the Brennan steerable torpedo, whose adoption by the Admiralty made him
rich and rendered possible the long years of study and experiment that
went to the making of the mono-rail car. He has a touch of the rich
man's complacency; it does not go ill with his kindly good humor and his
single-hearted pride in his life work.
It is characteristic, I think, of his honesty of purpose and of the
genius that is his driving force that hitherto he has concerned himself
with scientific invention somewhat to the exclusion of the commercial
aspects of his contrivance. He has had help in money and men from the
British Government, which likewise placed the torpedo factory at his
disposal; and the governments of India and--of all places--Kashmir have
granted him subsidies. Railroad men from all parts of the world have
seen his model; but he has not been ardent in the hunt for customers.
Perhaps that will not be necessary; the mono-rail car should be its own
salesman; but, in the meantime, it is not amiss that a great inventor
should stand aloof from commerce.
But, for all the cheerful matter-of-factness of the man, he, too, has
seen visions. There are times when he talks of the future as he hopes it
will be, as he means it to be, when "transportation is civilization."
Men are to travel then on a single rail, in great cars like halls, two
hundred feet long, thirty to forty feet wide, whirling across continents
at two hundred miles an hour--from New York to San Francisco between
dawn and dawn.
Travel will no longer be uncomfortable. These cars, equipped like a
hotel, will sweep along with the motion of an ice-yacht. They will not
jolt over uneven places, or strain to mount the track at curves; in each
one, the weariless gyroscopes will govern an unchanging equilibrium.
Trustful Kashmir will advance from its remoteness to a place accessible
from anywhere. Streetcar lines will no longer be a perplexity to paving
authorities and anathema to other traffic; a single rail will be flush
with the ground, out of the way of hoofs and tires. Automobiles will run
on two wheels like a bicycle. It is to be a mono-rail world, soothed and
assured by the drone of gyroscopes. By that time the patient ingenuity
of inventors and engineers will have found the means to run the
gyroscopes at a greater speed than is now possible, thus rendering it
feasible to use a smaller wheel. It is a dream based on good, solid
reasoning, backed by a great inventor's careful calculations; H.G. Wells
has given a picture of it in the last of his stories of the future.
Practical railroad men have given to the mono-rail car a sufficiently
warm welcome. They have been impressed chiefly by its suitability to the
conditions of transportation in the great new countries, as, for
instance, on that line of railway that is creeping north from the
Zambesi to open up the copper deposits of northwestern Rhodesia, and on
through Central Africa to its terminus at Cairo. Just such land as this
helped to inspire Brennan. He was a boy when he first saw the endless
plains of Australia, and out of that experience grew his first
speculations about the future of railway travel. Such lands make
positive and clear demands, if ever they are to be exploited for their
full value to humanity. They need railways quickly laid and cheaply
constructed; lines not too exacting in point of curves and gradients;
and, finally, fast travel. It is not difficult to see how valuable the
mono-rail would have been in such an emergency as the last Sudan War,
when the army dragged a line of railway with it down toward Omdurman.
Petrol-driven cars to replace the expensive steam locomotives, easy
rapid transit instead of the laborious crawl through the stifling desert
heat--a complete railway installation, swiftly and cheaply called into
being, instead of a costly and cumbersome makeshift.
The car went back to her garage, or engine-shed, or stable, or whatever
the railway man of the future shall decide to call it. Struts were
pulled into position to hold her up, the motors were switched off, and
the gyroscopes were left to run themselves down in forty-eight hours or
so. When the mono-rail comes into general use, explained Brennan, there
will be docks for the cars, with low brick walls built to slide under
the platforms and take their weight.
While his guests assembled in a store-shed to drink champagne and eat
sandwiches, he produced a big flat book, sumptuously bound, and told us
how his patents were being infringed on in Germany. On that same day
there was an exhibition of a mono-rail car on the Brennan principle
taking place at the Zo÷logical Gardens in Berlin; the book was its
catalogue. It was full of imaginative pictures of trains fifty years
hence, and thereto was appended sanguine letter-press. While there
sounded in our ears the hum of the gyroscopes from the car housed in the
rear, I translated one paragraph for him. It was to the effect that one
Brennan, an Englishman, had conducted experiments with gyroscopes ten
years ago, but the matter had gone no further.
"There, now," said Brennan.
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