Friday, November 9, 2007

The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion - Fourth Article - November 9, 2007

This blog is named after a series of articles written by Doctor P. H. Van der Weyde and published in Manufacturer and Builder Magazine in 1889 and 1890. The more I learn about Doctor P. H. Van der Weyde -- I'll share more about him in future posts -- the more I like him. Here is the last of four parts, in which he discusses a stock scam.

First article.

Second article.

Third article.

The text is taken from the Library of Congress' American Memory site (

The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion.



Manufacturer and Builder Magazine, Volume 22, Issue 1, January 1890

When Alfred Brisbane constructed the pneumatic dispatch in Washington city, as described on
page 242 of the December number of this journal, he was (if my information is correct) assisted by Chas. M. Johnson in the execution of the scheme. After the Washington failure, Mr. Brisbane went to the West, and there attempted to revive the system. He found in Michigan some financial assistance from private individuals, and constructed there, for the purpose of exhibition, a sheet-iron tube in sections, connected after the manner of making smoke stacks
for river steamers. The sections were connected, not by overlapping, but by exterior bands, so as to have the interior smooth; while, in addition, a smooth iron gutter was placed at the bottom, so as to bear the weight of the ball, which had a diameter of 28 inches, the tube having an interior diameter of 30 inches, and a total length of 1,200 feet. The ball at first used was hollow, and made of papier-mâché -- at least it is thus described in the only patent found in the Patent Office records, and granted to A. P. Johnson November 25, 1887, No. 372,023.

This patent does not claim the use of rolling balls, as this had become public property since about 1878, Needham's patent having been granted about 1861. This is probably the reason why the claims are confined, first, to some improvements in the construction of the air cushions, intended to arrest the balls, without destructive collisions between the balls and the tube, at the end of the latter, and at the stations where side pockets are provided to receive, discharge, and re-charge the contents of the balls. The second kind of improvement claimed, is in the construction of the ball of papier-mâché, which is minutely described in the claim and also in the specification.

It appears that these patented papier-mâché balls did not answer the purpose. Probably the iron tubes, through the interior of which they were made to roll with great velocity, were too much for the weaker papier-mâché. This caused rapid wearing out, and their use was abandoned -- at least this was so when the plant and tubes arrived in New York for the purpose of exhibition.

The sales of shares in this new stock enterprise appear to have been so encouraging in the West, that those interested in the scheme, felt justified in transplanting the whole affair to that great center of stock speculation -- New York, with a fine office fronting the artery for money making or losing, in Wall street and Broadway. In the latter thoroughfare, at No. 137, second floor, front room, I received the information that for the ball a hollow cast-iron shell was substituted, of 28 inches diameter, and of a weight of 700 pounds, rolling on the surface of the gutter slightly elevated above the interior surface, and stated to be able to move with a velocity far surpassing that of the swiftest locomotive. The praise of the enormous advantages of this system of transmission was most enthusiastic, and the statements in regard to the profits to be expected by those who were wise enough to invest their money in shares of stock were overwhelming.

When, however, inspecting the operation of the plant at Marion, N. J., the impression obtained was quite different; the shaking of the blower, which revolved with enormous velocity by a steam engine, and the thundering noise produced by the rolling ball, was in striking contrast with the silent pneumatic dispatch engine in the cellars of the Western Union building. As every engineer knows that the productiotin of so much noise involves a great waste of power, it is surprising that such a prosperous business was done in the sale of stock -- at least if the statements of the assistants are to be trusted. These sales, and offers for the patent rights, were said to be similar to those suggested on page 242 of the November number of this journal. The assistants were imbued with the highest expectations, such as the projected building of a tube to the Scranton coal mines, where the finest qualities of coal would be placed in the hollow iron balls and rolled over mountains and through tunnels under rivers, and delivered in Jersey City at less cost than at present.

However, it appears that the heavy iron balls of 700 pounds weight were too much for the tube, as their use was also abandoned. When I last visited the plant, a solid wooden ball, of the same diameter, was used, and thundered through the tube. Nothing, of course, could be put in the solid ball, but this appears to have been considered of no importance, while, in order to impress the spectators with the high velocity attained, small levers were suspended in the top of the tube, arranged from distance to distance in such a way as to cause a visible and audible signal outside when the ball passed and moved the interior little levers.

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