"Now, who’s for Bengal?"
An outrageously hatted couple stands on Greenwich Hill. They care nothing for the famous views but await their turn at the entrance to a giant tube. Other passengers have already entered this high-speed tunnel to India.
The detail is from an 1829 vision of future London, as drawn by cartoonist William Heath. Dubbed 'March of the Intellect', it's a reasonably well-known cartoon — we've even seen it used as pub wallpaper — but it contains many interesting nuggets that are worth a closer look.
Like his more famous contemporaries Cruickshank and Gillray, William Heath had a talent for parody. One way to mock the trends of the present, Heath found, was to project them into the future. That's what's happening here.
Let's look again at the couple on Greenwich Hill. They are about to be transported to India by the 'Grand Vacuum Tube Company'. Here, Heath is lampooning an idea that had been brewing for some years.
His sketch depicts a pneumatic railway — that is, a transport system whose power comes from differences in air pressure in front of and behind the carriage. Like a giant pea-shooter, by blowing or sucking, you can propel an object in the tube either forwards or backwards.
A human-scale equivalent was first proposed by George Medhurst in 1812, but he was unable to develop the idea further. In 1824, a few years before Heath's cartoon, a man called John Vallance finally patented a pneumatic tube that could convey passengers at 50 miles per hour. The London Standard described his plans as 'both absurd and impracticable', and the scheme failed to get backing.
It was not until 1864 — long after Heath's cartoon — that a viable demonstration line was constructed, in the form of the short-lived Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway. This passenger system ran for about half a kilometre from Sydenham to Penge. A smaller freight version from Euston to the City also had limited success, running from 1863 to 1874. But atmospheric railways were never widely adopted for passenger transport.
Fast forward 190 years from Heath's cartoon and vacuum tubes are in the news again. Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk has plans to build so-called hyperloops between major cities. These use a partial vacuum and magnetic propulsion to speed trains at something like 1,000 km/h. The technology is still at an early stage, but a centuries-old vision may finally become reality.
What else is in the futuristic cartoon?
We should look again at Heath’s cartoon, for it touches on other issues of his era. A steam-powered wagon boasts that it can reach Bath in just six hours. The driver sits out front, clutching reins, but no horses pull the load. Meanwhile, a mechanical horse billows smoke from a huge exhaust chimney at its tail. A jockey figure controls a plunger device at the head, while riders share a lengthy saddle.
Is Heath a magician for predicting a horseless future? No. Experimental horseless carriages were, in fact, already rumbling along the roads of London. The earliest prototypes date back to the 1760s and numerous patented improvements arrived thereafter. A report in the Morning Post of Boxing Day 1827 lists seven London-based engineers independently working on their own designs for steam carriages. Chief among them was Goldsworthy Gurney, whose steam carriage manufactory was close to Regent’s Park. Read more about his achievements in another article.
Many more fanciful flourishes can be found throughout Heath’s drawing. An artillery company is carried through the skies on a platform supported by four balloons. An improbable bat-shaped vehicle cuts through the skies, making for New South Wales. A flying postman, looking something like a gentrified Batman, swoops down to deliver a letter to a fellow smoking a complicated pipe. Meanwhile, Irish emigrants are blasted from a cannon for 'quick conveyance'. 'Lord how the world improves as we grow older,' reads a sardonic legend at the top.
Heath is mocking the unstoppable tide of invention brought on by the industrial revolution. This 'march of the intellect' would become a popular theme for commentators and cartoonists over the coming years. The new technology (it was both feared and hoped) would turn society upside down, giving new freedoms to the 'underclass'. An anonymous poem of 1834 captured the mood.
I sing the March of Intellect,
Which makes such rapid way—
Porkmen and Smiths are now the Lockes
And Bacons of the day.
I sing the March of Intellect,
Its triumphs yet to swell—
The scullion writes, the pot-boy reads,
As if by magic spell.
I sing the March of Intellect—
Propelled by water hot;
Steam wonders does, and will do more,
We scarcely yet know Watt.