Capsule Pipelines – Early Developments

The idea of using pipeline systems for the movement of large solids is attributed to George Medhurst. This may be purely a function of the fact that upon his death, Medhurst’s pamphlets and notes were consigned to a library, where perhaps those of any contemporaries were not.

Initial Experimentation

Denis Papin is widely attributed with the presentation of a paper entitled the ‘Double Pneumatic Pump’ to the Royal Society of London in 1667 [1/2]. All the available evidence suggests this is inaccurate, although Denis Papin, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle were all involved in early experiments with pneumatics between 1660 and 1690 [A]. Papin conducted a number of experiments aimed to show how power could be transferred between two places using a liquid filled pipe. Some of these are found in [3], although [4/5] suggest Papin continued to experiment with the idea in the years prior to his death. All his experiments were unsuccessful, something Pinkus [4] suggests reflected the poor quality of materials used, rather than any flaw in the underlying method. They coincide with his fall from favour within the European scientific community.

Mr Van Estin, a gentleman scientist living in Maastricht, Holland [6], propelled a hollow ball containing a package through a tube several hundred feet long by means of a blast of air [1]. This occurred ‘toward the end of the eighteenth century’. The device was regarded as a toy, of no practical use.

Medhurst and Vallance

George Medhurst was born in Shoreham, Kent, England, in 1759 [7]. He manufactured scales from premises in Denmark Street in London, however, also invented uses for compressed air in his spare time. In 1810 Medhurst published a pamphlet, in which he proposed the use air for conveying letters and goods [8]. He stated that “the pressure required will nearly agree with the square of the velocity”, and hence, he believed, speeds of 100 or even 1000 miles per hour (mph) could be achieved. This at a time when canals and horse-cart were responsible for the movement of most goods. Medhurst proposed the movement of letters in ‘packets’ (capsules), with two tubes allowing letters to be transported in both directions “without possibility of their clashing against each other”. He goes on to propose the adoption of larger diameter systems, with tube to be “built of brick, stone, timber, or iron, of twelve feet area”. Four-wheeled ‘carriages’ would run on iron tracks within the tube. “A carriage loaded with one ton weight of goods, and weighing itself ten hundred, will be impelled upon level ground with the velocity of 20 miles per hour by a pressure of air against it of 220lb. which is two ounces per square inch”. In one short document Medhurst described technology which would remain largely unchanged for a further 150 years.

In 1812 Medhurst mussed on the possibility that such a system might be used for the transport of passengers, but was concerned that passengers might not take kindly to be transported within tubes [9]. He sought to develop a means by which passengers could be moved outside of the tube, but by some form of pneumatic propulsion.

John Vallance, of Brighton, England, took out a patent based on ideas similar to those contained within Medhurst’s 1812 pamphlet [7]. The extent to which Vallance was aware of Medhurst’s work is unclear. One author ([10]) suggests Vallance actually exhibited a Medhurst prototype in Brighton in 1827, however this can not be confirmed, and there is obvious scope for confusion between these two individuals in the literature. Vallance built a prototype at his home, 1 Devonshire Place in Brighton. The system had a diameter of 8 feet, and was 150 feet long, with a pair of rails laid inside the tube upon which a capsule ran. The capsule, with 20 passengers was propelled through the tube at a speed of 2 mph. Unfortunately retardation of the capsule was achieved by opening the door to the passenger compartment, which made for an unpleasant experience for passengers, and the system soon ridiculed as ‘Vallance’s Suffocation Scheme’ [11]. In 1826 the prototype was investigated by Sir William Couling, on behalf of the Russian Embassy. He was clearly taken with the idea, and suggested consideration for St Petersburg to Tsarsko-selo, the River Volga, Moscow and the Black Sea routes.

At a town meeting in Brighton in June of 1827 Vallance’s proposals for a Brighton to Shoreham (Brighton’s commercial port) and Brighton to ‘the Metropolis’ (London) were given the ‘blessing’ of the town. A company (the London, Brighton and Shoreham Pneumatic Conveyance Company) was formed to initially build the former scheme, primarily for the transport of coal and bulky products. Unfortunately the company failed to gain sufficient financial backing or patronage, and by 1828 plans had been abandoned. Shortly after this date works commenced on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. This provided relatively rapid transport of passengers and goods between the points which would have been covered by the London, Brighton and Shoreham Pneumatic Conveyance Company.

In 1827 Medhurst published a further pamphlet [12]. He proposed three options for ‘pneumatic railways’: (1) a 24″ diameter tube laid below railway tracks; (2) a road carriage running over 2ft sq cast iron tube; (3) a goods track running inside a tube, and attached to a passenger carriage running outside the tube. The first option would form the basis of ‘atmospheric railways’, which were implemented as part of a number of heavy rail schemes between 1830 and 1860 [for a full discussion of these see 7]. Medhurst would never live to see his inventions implemented on large scale: he died in September 1827 and was buried at the place of his birth.


A. Denis Papin was born in Blois, France on 22 August 1647 [13]. He received a medical doctorate from Angers University in 1669. He then worked under scientist Christiaan Huygens in Paris. From 1675 to 1680 he worked with Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle in London. Papin retuned to Paris in 1680, before being appointed Director of Experiments (sic) at Ambrose Sarotti’s academy in Venice. In 1684 Papin returned to the Royal Society in London. In notes from 1684 [14] Papin refers to “The pnewmatick engine, which I printed about ten years agoe…”. Papers deposited by Papin include an undocumented diagram of what looks like an experimental version of this pump. Papin’s first presentation to the Royal Society was in 1686 [15]. Papin went on to develop one of the first cylinder and piston steam engines, before disappearing into obscurity. The only presentation on pneumatics made to the Royal Society in 1667 was by Robert Boyle [16]. He placed various items in tubes, and then exhausted air from the tube. However, the aim of the experiment was to understand the behaviour of gas, not to show that the item could be propelled along the tube.

  1. Howland, D., (undated), Pneumatic mail, Dead Media Working Note,, and, based on Scientific American, December 11, 1897, [cached text].
  2. Zandi, I., (1976), Transport of Road Solid Commodities via Freight Pipeline, Report No. DOT-TST-76T-36, University of Pennsylvannia to Department of Transportation, 20590, Vol II.
  3. Papin, D., (1695), Recueil de diverses pieces touchant quelques nouvelles machines’, Cassel.
  4. Pinkus, H., (1840), The Pneumatic-Atmospheric and Gaso-Pneumatic Railway, Common Road and Canal Transit, John Weale, London. Note that Pinkus’ dates need to be treated with caution – he quotes Papin as conducting work more than 10 years after even the most conservative estimate of his death.
  5. Encyclopaedia Britannica, (1952), entry for Denis Papin; also Ernouf, E., (1888), Life of Papin, (4th ed – in French?).
  6. Anon, undated, 100 years of cinema exhibition in Belgium – a historical profile,
  7. Hadfield, Charles, (1967), Atmospheric Railways, David and Charles.
  8. Medhurst, George, (1810), New method of conveying letters and goods with great certainty and rapidity by air, London.
  9. Medhurst, George, (1812), Calculations and remarks tending to prove the practicability … of a plan for the rapid conveyance of goods and passengers upon an iron road through a tube of 30 feet in area, by the power and velocity of air, London.
  10. Round, G., (1992), Pneumatic Capsule Pipeline Systems – A short history and state-of-the-art, Bulk Solids Handling, Vol 12, no. 1, February, p67-72.
  11. Clayton, Francis Howard, (1966), The Atmospheric Railways.
  12. Medhurst, George, (1827), A new system of inland conveyance for goods and passengers … with the velocity of sixty miles an hour … without the aid of horses or any animal power, London.
  13. Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography.
  14. Papin, D., (1684), ‘Experiments made by Dor Papin, viz… some alteration on… improvement in his Pnenmatick Engine’, 9th April 1684′, records held by Royal Society, London.
  15. Papin, D., (1686), ‘A demonstration of the velocity wherewith the air rushes into an exhausted receiver lately produced before the royal society by Papin’, November 24 1686′, records held by Royal Society, London.
  16. Boyle, R., (1667/8), ‘New experiments concerning the relationship between light and air (in shining wood and fifh)…’, Philosophical Transactions, no.31, January 6, 581.

Index: Capsule Pipelines ·