I sometimes find myself buying books for the completeness of my library, advertised as having some Irish material, but often very disappointing: a chapter or two, which says little, or merely cribs both text and illustrations from earlier books. But, I recently hit lucky with a volume on mono-rails by Adrian Garner*. The book is substantial: 288 pages, lavishly illustrated with photographs, facsimiles of sketches; and scale engineering drawings. I suspect it is the result of years, if not decades of painstaking research, with extensive reference lists showing good use of the primary sources, often contemporary scientific journals and newspapers. For the Irish content, there is a detailed chapter on the Listowel & Ballybunion. This line already has several books to itself, but Adrian provides some new material, with drawings of nearly all the rolling stock, more detailed and to larger scale reproduction than those already published. There are also some extra pictures of the coaches, but I suspect these represent skilful enlargements from the National Library of Ireland’s glass plates rather than a previously unknown hoard of negatives.
But, I was tempted to read the rest of the book, and was well-rewarded. Early on, Adrian attempts to classify mono-rails: he gets as far as four types: post-and-rail; A-frame (as used on the Ballybunion line); bicycle (see below); and suspended from an overhead guide. However, the sheer fecundity of nineteenth century inventors means he has to fall back on a catch all “unique” category for a whole host of other odd and eccentric systems. It seems there was a never ending supply of ideas for mono-rails, but to paraphrase Dr Johnson, the good parts of these were rarely new and the original parts rarely worked! Some of the lines ran foul of legislation, which specified maximum or minimum gauge, since a mono-rail, by definition, has no gauge! The Boynton Bicycle systems had a vertical gauge of between nine and fifteen feet, measured between the ground level guide rail and an upper rail on which small balancing wheels ran. In practice of course, except for lines suspended from above, most “mono-rails” required more than one point of support to maintain balance.
Many systems never got beyond a few drawings and a patent registration; others existed only as scale model or short demonstration lines. The few which were built rarely provided more than a few years of public service. In Adrian’s terms, they were ”technically successful” (i.e. they did at least work), but financial failures, or in modern language they were effective but not efficacious. The Ballybunion line, in spite of its failure to generate a profit, was remarkably long-lived. The only line in the book which has lasted longer is the Wuppertal system in Germany, still thriving today. One can only assume that the mechanical advantages offered by the use of smooth wheel on smooth rail, and the economy of using a single rail system, powered this diversity of ideas, but that once the pneumatic tyre and the internal combustion engine arrived, the idea had had its day.
The basic motto of mono-rail designers seems to have been: “Originality before practicality!” this extended to propulsion where all sort of muscle and mechanical drives (and in one case a hot-air balloon!) were proposed, including electrical motors from the Daft [sic] Electric Light Company of New Jersey, founded by one Leo Daft. The illustration from side on often look like a fairly orthodox engine and coaches, but the head on or plan views show just how elongated and etiolated the machines were, maybe another version of the old joke about Harcourt Street station having length but no width. Although many were proposed as purely local street tramway type systems, there were grandiose plans for high-speed (up to 150 mph) inter-urban lines. Many of the illustrations are from contemporary journals, often of the “artist’s impression” variety, and some of these are a bizarre mix of the Victorian and futuristic, producing a sort of Dan Dare meets HG Wells life in the twenty-first century panorama. One of the oddest is Captain Meig’s elevated mono-rail, one of the relatively more successful design which did get as far as a one mile demonstration line. A rather conjectural picture shows what this might have looked like if Boston had ever sanctioned a commercial version: space age cylindrical carriages, but a smoking chimney and serious men in top hats and frock coats in the cab. I have a feeling the Steam Punk gang would love this!