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Description of the Atmospheric System—History of its Introduction prior to 1844

Messrs. Clegg and Samuda, the projectors of the Atmospheric System, which was another mode of using stationary power, had, previously to this period, laboured to attract the attention and win the favourable opinion of engineers and the general public.

It is desirable, before proceeding further, to give a brief description of this system of traction, upon the merits of which distinguished engineers entertained widely different opinions.

Between the two rails of the line of way was laid a cast-iron tube, which on the Croydon and Dalkey railways and the completed or level portion of the South Devon Railway was fifteen inches in diameter. On the inclines it was proposed to use a twenty-two inch tube.

At intervals of about three miles along the line were erected stationary engines, working large air-pumps, by means of which air could be exhausted from the tube, and a partial vacuum created within it. A close-fitting piston was placed in one end of the tube, and the air being exhausted from it, the pressure of the external air on the surface of the piston which was towards the open end of the tube forced the piston through the tube towards the end where the air-pumps were working; so that if the piston were connected with a carriage running on the rails, it would draw the carriage with it. The connection between the piston and the carriage was arranged by Messrs. Clegg and Samuda in the following way: [1]  Along the top of the tube was a slit about 2½ inches wide; this slit was closed by a long flap of leather, which was strengthened with iron plates, and secured to the tube at one side of the slit. One edge of the leather thus formed a continuous hinge; the other edge, where it closed on the tube, was sealed with a composition of grease, to render it air-tight. This flap was known by the name of the longitudinal valve.

When the valve was closed, the air could be exhausted from the tube in front of the piston, and a partial vacuum formed. Behind the piston, the air being at atmospheric pressure both within and without the tube, there was no objection to opening the longitudinal valve; and a bar, extending downwards from the under side of the carriage, entered the slit obliquely under the opened valve, and was connected to the rear end of a frame about ten feet long, the front end of which carried the piston. To allow the bar to pass along the slit, the valve was opened on its hinge, being pressed upwards by a series of wheels carried by the moving piston-frame inside the tube. The valve closed again after the passage of the train; and the tube was ready to be exhausted in preparation for the passage of the next train. [2]

The Atmospheric System was first tried in 1840. An experimental tube was laid down at Wormwood Scrubs on part of the short line now incorporated into the West London Railway, and then known by the title of the Bristol, Birmingham, and Thames Junction Railway. Its working was the subject of eager discussion among engineers.

In 1842 Sir Frederic Smith, R.E., and Professor Barlow, under an order from the Board of Trade, reported so favourably on the system with reference to the proposal for its application on the Dalkey branch of the Dublin and Kingstown Railway, that it was adopted there. In 1843 Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Cubitt determined to employ it on the Croydon Railway; and about the same time Mr. Robert Stephenson was desired by the Directors of the Chester and Holyhead Railway to report on the propriety of introducing it on that line.

Mr. Stephenson’s report was based on a series of experiments on the working of the system at Dalkey. The view he took was adverse to its adoption, not only on the Chester and Holyhead, but on almost every railway whatsoever; and this on the ground that, though it was quite capable of being developed into a practical working system, yet on lines with ordinary gradients the atmospheric traction must be considerably more costly than locomotive traction, and on steep gradients than rope traction; in other words, that, as a mechanical appliance it was, though practicable, not economical.

Mr. Stephenson’s report had no sooner appeared than the correctness of his conclusions was disputed on his giving evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons, in the spring of 1844, on the Croydon and Epsom Railway Bill.

[1] The apparatus patented in 1839 by Mr. Samuel Clegg and Messrs. Jacob and Joseph Samuda, and improved from time to time by them, was that adopted in almost all the attempts made in this country to introduce the Atmospheric System. In reckoning up the force which was available for mastering the practical difficulties of the undertaking, the death, in 1844, of Mr. Jacob Samuda must be considered to have been to his brother, and to all others concerned, a great and irreparable loss.

[2] A considerable amount of engine power was necessarily consumed in exhausting the tube before the passage of the train commenced; and it might at first sight appear that this work was wasted, and that it was only the work which the engine performed during the passage of the train which was useful in traction. This, however, was not the case; for, as was admitted by the more scientific of the opponents of the Atmospheric System, the power employed in anticipatory pumping was work legitimately stored up and re-delivered in relief of the engines during the passage of the train. A waste of power incidental to the Atmospheric System was indicated by the heat of the air which was delivered by the exhausting pumps. This waste, however, amounted on the average to only 10 per cent. of the total work done. A further source of waste of power was the friction of the air passing along the tube to the exhausting pumps; this waste was found to amount, on the average, to from 10 to 15 per cent. of the total work done.

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