Freak Vehicles for Air, Land, and Water (Sep, 1933)

Freak Vehicles for Air, Land, and Water

Birds, Dogs and Other Animals Used to Propel the Odd Boats, Wagons, and Airships Inventors Have Devised in Their Efforts to Bring About Faster, Safer,
and More Certain Ways to Travel

RIDING to the North Pole pulled by a kite! Crossing the Sahara in a juggernaut with fifty-foot wheels! Galloping along the ground on a mechanical horse with steel-pipe legs! Rolling over trees and houses in a 115-foot canvas ball blown by the wind like a tumbleweed!

Such are the curious, fantastic forms of conveyance inventors have proposed in the long search for swifter travel. Digging into the files of old newspapers and patents, you find a fascinating record of the inventive mind grappling with the problems of increasing human comfort and speed. It is a chronicle of queer ideas, of freak vehicles, of oddities of transportation.

Only a few weeks ago, a California inventor added to this list by obtaining a patent upon a water craft designed to roll across the surface of the sea.

His ship (see this month’s cover) is a gigantic ball of metal with a streamlined passenger cabin trailing high behind on a Y-shaped arm of steel. Heavy Deisel-electric engines inside the ball roll it forward through the water by running up the side on an endless track like a squirrel in a cage. Fins, jutting around the tread of the ball, grip the water and aerial propellers at either end of the axle steer the craft to left or right. Passageways, running through the hollow supporting arm and axle, connect the cabin and the interior of the ball, while a gyroscope holds the craft erect upon the water. The inventor expects his vessel to be used for amusement-park purposes and in addition be valuable for transport work.

Ships designed to roll like wheels across the surface of the water have been proposed by many men. A quarter of a century ago, one, nicknamed the “Steel Log Steamer”, was built and given a 200-mile test in Canada. The invention of a Toronto lawyer, it was a 110-foot hollow steel cylinder with rudders at each end and a wide row of fins encircling the middle. Inside the cylinder, two small locomotives, one near either end, puffed away on endless tracks, running up the side to roll the freak craft broadside through the water.

It was completed in 1906. In a final test, it rolled from Toronto down Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River and down the river to Prescott, Canada, opposite Ogdensburg. With the engines going full tilt, the curious vessel attained a speed of six miles an hour. At the time, the inventor planned to construct a trans-Atlantic liner built on the same principle. It was to be 800 feet long and 200 feet in diameter. Sitting down with a pad and pencil, he calculated that if he could obtain only twenty-five revolutions a minute from this huge rolling log, he could attain trans-oceanic speeds of 200 miles an hour with his strange rolling craft.

While its speed was nothing to brag about, another application of squirrel cage power caused considerable comment in America fifty years ago.

A French engineer designed an apparatus called a Cynosphere. It was a tricycle with a small steering wheel in front and two large and curious wheels behind. Each of the rear wheels was shaped like a circular cage and contained a large dog. These “power-plants” rolled the carriage ahead by running squirrel-fashion on narrow tracks.

The operator sat in a sulky seat between the wheels and could throw the motors into “high” by exhibiting food or even a cat on special occasions. Whenever the dogs became tired, the engineer pointed out, the operator could change engines by replacing them with other animals. Patents on the idea were taken out both in France and the United States. The French Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was consulted and was said to have given its sanction to the plan.

In the United States, advertisements appeared in various publications setting forth in glowing terms the virtues of the Cynosphere. “It is of light and graceful mechanism,” they read, “so it can be used by ladies and children as well as by gentlemen. For pleasure purposes, it is unsurpassed and its moderate expense brings it within easy reach of all. When it is fully introduced to the American public, it is destined to attain greater popularity than that now held by the velocipede!”

An even queerer attempt to utilize living motors is contained in a balloon patent issued in the United States in 1881. By fitting birds with corsets, the inventor planned to steer his dirigible through the sky.

Eagles and vultures, wearing these harnesses, which left them free to flap their wings, were to be mounted on rollers so they could be moved about to lift at the right place and guide the nose of the aircraft up or down, to left or right.

A wooden snake and a bumblebee suggested two other strange vehicles of the air to early experimenters. In the West, a mechanic worked for seven years upon a dirigible with a bag made up of segments like the sections of a toy snake. The idea was that the leading section would steer the ship, the others following like a train rounding a curve.

The bumblebee craft was the product of a Belgian inventor. It was a flying machine with an immense air-sack at the rear, looking like the segmented abdomen of an insect. In landing, the machine was supposed to drop backward to the ground, striking on this air-bag, the segments of which would telescope together to break the fall!

In the early days of railroading, a mule was the inspiration of a queer idea in connection with transportation. Trainmen in the Southwest had to make frequent stops to drive mules and cattle off the track. This was the cue for a Kansas inventor to step forward with his patented mule-remover.

It was a stop-cock arrangement to be installed on the front of the locomotive and operated from the engineer’s cabin. When a mule appeared on the track ahead, the engineer would pull a lever and out would squirt a hundred-yard stream of hot water that would clear the track. To take care of animals on the turns, the gadget was arranged so it could be shifted from side to side to shoot around curves as well as in a straight line!

Sometimes, one of these laughed-at innovators was actually skirting the borders of a great invention. Such was the case with Peter Nissen, the Chicago accountant, and his “Fool-killer III,” undoubtedly one of the weirdest vehicles ever conceived.

In the early years of the present century, Nissen was seeking a way to reach the North Pole. One of his schemes for traversing the rough Arctic ice was to use an automobile equipped with huge, low-pressure tires. Thus, thirty years before this time, Nissen dreamed of the modern balloon tire. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t stop there. The idea of the balloon tire kept growing in his mind. It got bigger and bigger and eventually the automobile disappeared from his plans and only the tire remained!

This was his fantastic scheme: He would construct a canvas bag, 115 feet long and seventy-five feet in diameter, fill it with hydrogen gas and sail as far north as possible. Then he would let out the gas, detach the car and, carrying it inside through a trap-door in the canvas, attach it to a central axle held in place by ropes radiating out to the envelope.

Climbing into the car, he would start a suction pump and fill the huge bag, higher than a six-story building, with air. Then he would let the wind roll him across the ice toward the Pole!

By sliding the car along the axle from one side to the other, he planned to alter the course of the rolling bag. If the wind shifted, blowing from the wrong direction, he would deflate the envelope and anchor it until the breeze again favored him. Then reinflating the immense football, he would roll on toward his goal. With the pump keeping the internal pressure of the bag at about one-half ounce per square inch, Nissen figured he could roll over masses of ice as big as a small house without a jar and could run smoothly across snow and open water even in the grip of a seventy-five mile an hour blizzard.

To test his idea, Nissen built three experimental bags. The last, dubbed “Foolkiller III,” was thirty-two feet long and twenty-two feet in diameter. It was made of heavy canvas, varnished several times. In this airtight ball, he rolled over the surface of Lake Michigan for distances up to two miles, during the summer and fall of 1905. Then, on the afternoon of November 29, he started his ill-fated attempt to cross the lake during a terrific gale.

Steamers were hugging their ports at four o’clock in the afternoon when he crawled into the canvas ball and sealed the opening. At the muffled word from within, helpers released the envelope and the huge ball rolled down the shore and into the water, growing smaller and smaller until it disappeared over the eastern horizon. During the night, the wind reached fifty miles an hour and it grew bitter cold. Two days passed without a word from the canvas ball. Then, hunters on the eastern shore of the lake, nearly a hundred miles away, found Nissen’s frozen body and remains of the strange vehicle that had carried him to death.

In one of his pockets was a card bearing the scribbled words: “Air hose has broken. N.” The “Foolkiller III” had survived the storm and had crossed the lake. But the defective hose had allowed it to become partially deflated so it had failed to roll up on the sand out of the pounding surf. Nissen had cut his way out of the envelope. Then, weakened by the bitter cold and exhausted by his struggle with the surf, he had perished on the shore. Imagine a trip to the North Pole pulled by a kite! That was the journey visioned thirty years ago by an English experimenter, S. F. Cody, who later made some of the pioneer airplane flights in the British Isles. Shortly before, the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nan-sen, had returned with the report that he had been stopped before reaching the North Pole by a wall of ice 125 feet high. Cody suggested that kites could be used to lift sleds and supplies over such a barrier as well as to pull them along the level ice. As proof of his contention, he constructed a curious kite-driven boat and crossed the English Channel in thirteen hours, pulled through the water by his aerial power-plant.

That was in 1903. In the same year, one of the strangest of these curiosities of transportation appeared, also in England. It was a walking steam-engine. Its inventor called it the Pedrail. Instead of ordinary wheels, this footed locomotive had a series of heavy, circular metal blocks, suggesting elephant hoofs, facing outward around the rim. As they neared the ground, the mechanism within the wheel brought them into position so they were planted firmly and the engine advanced on an endless procession of steel feet. In tests, the Pedrail climbed over stones and timbers put in its way.

Even the wildest plan in this realm of constant flux cannot be dismissed without consideration. Nothing in all this recital of mechanical oddities appeared more absurd or outlandish than did the autogiro when it first appeared on the horizon of invention. Yet, today, the flying windmill is an accepted feature of the airways.

During the last century—a hundred years of amazing advance in comfort and speed— the inventors of strange, surprising, often fantastic vehicles have played a little-appreciated part. For without realizing it, the world is frequently indebted to their dreams for stimulating other workers and to their pioneering for opening new paths of research.

5 comments
  1. Matt Nelsen :: links for 2007-02-01 says: February 1, 20075:30 am

    [...] Modern Mechanix » Freak Vehicles for Air, Land, and Water I especially like the dog powered car. (tags: steampunk vehicle weird cool) [...]

  2. smilingnihilist says: May 28, 201011:41 pm

    great post. we need a good, reliable FoolKiller today!

  3. jayessell says: May 29, 20108:35 am

    The Tumbleweed Balloon is being considered as a Mars Rover.

  4. Firebrand38 says: May 29, 20106:01 pm

    jayessell: Not seriously considered http://www.nasa.gov/cen…
    http://www.nasa.gov/cen…

  5. Tuning Directory says: October 22, 201111:29 am

    This is the laziest way to walk the dog

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.