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The Atmospheric Railway of I.K. Brunel

R. A. Buchanan
Social Studies of Science
Vol. 22, No. 2, Symposium on 'Failed Innovations' (May, 1992), pp. 231-243
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/285614
Page Count: 13
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The Atmospheric Railway of I.K. Brunel
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Abstract

I.K. Brunel took the daring but carefully calculated decision to recommend the adoption of atmospheric propulsion on the South Devon Railway in 1844. The principle had been convincingly demonstrated in models and small-scale operation, and it offered attractive advantages on the heavy gradients between Exeter and Plymouth. However, the installation proved to be a costly failure for the South Devon Railway, and it was abandoned in 1848, when still incomplete. The immediate reasons for the failure were the problems involved in scaling up the atmospheric system for main-line operation, such as the maintenance of the pressure tube and its seal, and the provision of adequate pumping engines. But to some extent the atmospheric system was also overtaken by continuing improvements in steam locomotion, and in the long term any notional advantages the system may have possessed were surpassed by those provided by electric traction, so that there was no opportunity to give atmospheric railways another trial when the technical limitations had been overcome.

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