Horse-Powered Locomotives

Jul 22, 2021 0 comments

Before steam locomotives became mainstream, railways were driven solely by muscle power, usually horses. These beasts of burden pulled wagons full of coal and ores from mines to the docks over fixed rails made of wood or iron. At one point, these so called wagonways had become the principal means of transporting coal from major collieries across Europe.

In 1827, shortly after the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was founded, the company ran a competition for horse-powered locomotives, and a prize money of $500 was offered for the best machine to be demonstrated. The competition was won by the most peculiar design. Built by American engineer Christian Edward Detmold, the locomotive called the Flying Dutchman consisted of a single carriage at the center of which stood the horse on a treadmill. The horse was flanked by either side with benches facing outwards. When the horse walked on the treadmill, the power generated was transferred by a series of gears to the wagon’s axels moving the contraption forward.

The Flying Dutchman debuted in 1830 on a 6-mile section of the railroad. It carried 12 passengers at a time at a respectable speed of 12 miles per hour.

Despite the success of the Flying Dutchman, chief engineer Horatio Allen persuaded the railroad managers to transition to steam-powered locomotives because he believed that the amount of power that could derived from horses was limited. On the other hand, significant advances were being made in steam locomotive technology. The directors of the railroad company agreed and issued a resolution declaring that “the locomotive shall be alone used. The perfection of this power in its application to railroads is fast maturing and will certainly reach within the period of constructing our road a degree of excellence which will render the application of animal power a gross abuse of the gifts of genius and science.”

The Flying Dutchman.

Before making the final transition, the railroad experimented with another source of power—wind. On 19 March 1830, the first sail-powered car ran carrying about 15 passengers, attaining speeds up to 15 miles per hour. The winds were so strong that the mast was blown overboard. Eventually, a steam-powered locomotive called the “Best Friend of Charleston” was procured. Capable of carrying 40-50 passengers at speeds of 30–35 miles per hour, it was considered one of the fastest modes of transport at the time. The locomotive’s career ended just five months after it went into service when its boiler exploded. It was the first locomotive in the US to suffer a boiler explosion.

It was reported at that time that the fireman had grown tired of hearing the whistle of the steam pressure release valve and had blocked the safety valve with a stout piece of lumber to stop it from hissing. The boiler exploded as a result hurling metal fragments over a wide area and killing the fireman. After the accident, the railroad replaced it with another steam engine and never brought another horse. But this wasn’t the end of horse-powered locomotive.

The Cycloped

A similar locomotive called “Cycloped” featured in the Rainhill Trials of October 1829 competing against steam-powered locomotives. Unfortunately, the horse fell through the wooden platform and was disqualified

Again, at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London in 1851, Italian engineer Clemente Masserano exhibited a horse-powered locomotive called the Impulsoria. The locomotive was powered by four horses positioned over an inclined treadmill in two pairs. The locomotive, which had a metal frame, might be described as a 2-2-0. The driving wheels were large, something like 8 feet. in diameter, while the leading wheels were smaller. The driver mounted on one of the rear pair of horses, while a second man was carried on a rear platform, and presumably worked the brakes.

The Impulsoria

The gear box allowed the horses to always walk at their best speed whilst the vehicle could have a range of speeds and torques. Because of the gears, the top speed was not limited to the top speed of the horses. The gearbox also allowed the horses to drive the vehicle in reverse directions, and it was also possible to disengage the drive so that the vehicle could stop whilst the horses continued to walk up the treadmill. The vehicle travelled at 7 mph during the trials, but it was thought that a final version would reach 15 to 20 mph and would outrun a steam engine.

The Impulsoria was never used, but an Italian Professor of Philosophy, Dr Andrea Crestadoro, took interest. He improved the design of this unusual device, and even took out related patents. But shortly after, Crestadoro lost interest and became a librarian in Manchester.


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