The Hyperloop Alpha
When Elon Musk announced his concept of the Hyperloop Alpha around this time last year, the reaction in the press was something like total astonishment. He was disappointed in California’s approval of a bullet train that was one of the “highest cost per mile,” and “slowest” in the world. In one sweeping gesture, Mr. Musk had completely discarded the entire history of ground transportation engineering, and had delivered a vision of the future. The press was agog. Bloomberg BusinessWeek described him as a combination of Bill Gates, Howard Hughes, John D. Rockefeller, and Steve Jobs all rolled into one! (phew)! His friend John Favreau, the director of Iron Man, said that Musk was the real Tony Stark.
We were in the presence of a Marvel Comics ubermensch, whose creative genius was a gift to modern society. Or perhaps the wind had whipped the pages of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Howard Rourk himself had stepped forth, with miraculous pre-existing blueprints inscribed in his soul, ready to do battle with our dull mediocrity. I’m sure Musk would not eschew comparisons between himself and the namesake of his car company, Nikola Tesla.
So we were simultaneously enthralled with two questions- the first was about the nature of creativity (was Elon Musk truly a 21st-century creative genius? Where did his ideas come from?) and, incidentally, (and more practically) we wanted to know, would the Hyperloop actually work?
It was engineering from another plane; from another dimension entirely. On the Tesla blog, Musk casually laid out some of the issues accompanying the technology. You know, the little things that you have to adapt to when dealing with any technological innovation, such as, say, ground-level sonic booms. We imagine Musk politely yawning behind his hand while discussing this irritation, unimpressed by vehicles such as the ThrustSSC, one of the few ground vehicles in history to break the sound barrier.
Even the look of the hyperloop concept drawings seems other-planar, especially when compared to the schematics of the ThrustSSC. The ThrustSSC is saturated with testosterone. It is essentially just two gigantic jet turbines attached to a pilot pod that looks a lot like an enclosed bicycle. It is a behemoth, a sledgehammer of force.
The drawings of the Hyperloop Alpha, by contrast, are elegant and organic. It has sweeping, delicate curves, and looks something like a flower bud, or maybe a minnow. Or a federation vehicle from Star Trek.
And Star Trek engineering principles (limitless output of energy derived from non-proportional sources-i.e. dilithium crystals) seemed to apply to the Hyperloop as well. It would smoothly accelerate to speeds beyond 800 miles per hour, but would be entirely powered by integrated solar panels. In fact, the solar panels would gather energy in excess of the demands of the system. The excess could buttress the hyperextended California electrical grid. After construction costs, the Hyperloop would not only be cost-neutral to run, it would OUTPUT energy.
The Hyperloop builds on Maglev engineering pioneered in Japanese bullet trains. Essentially, magnetic repulsion allows the train to float above the rails. The magnetic field can be moved along the track electrically, and the train follows it. This is magnetic impulsion. Any kid with a couple of ceramic magnets can come up with the base impulse of the idea after a few moments. When you feel the magnets repelling each other, you immediately want to find a way to keep the floating magnet in place, just hanging there.
Musk’s innovation, his complete rupture with existing bullet train technology, was the introduction of pneumatic propulsion. In addition to using the existing magnetic levitation and impulsion technology, the Hyperloop is powered by air. The bullet train is enclosed in a steel tube, creating a limited volume of air. Magnetic impulsion is used to get the passenger capsule up to speed, and then pneumatic propulsion takes over. Each passenger compartment has a giant turbofan on the front (an air intake) and air outputs on the sides and back. The capsules essentially “lift off,” within the tube substituting a cushion of air for the initial MagLev impulse. The 800 mph speed is achieved by moving the set volume of air from one side of the capsule to the other. When the capsule is at speed it tends to remain at speed, because the air intake is gulping more air and the output is providing more thrust. The whole system is nearly frictionless, the train rides first on Magnetic Levitation and then on the air cushion. The Hyperloop uses far less power than MagLev impulsion alone, because it only requires impulsion at the beginning and the end of the trip, for acceleration and deceleration. For most of the trip, the capsule is pulled/pushed along by pneumatic thrust. Of course every kid has experience with pneumatic propulsion- because every kid has fired a spitwad through a straw.
It turns out the solution is stunningly simple! Of course it would work. The Hyperloop wasn’t descending upon us from the future like Iron-Man with his freaky infinite energy sources at all. As a matter of fact, the Hyperloop was mining discarded ideas from the past. It was not radical, untested technology, in fact it was relying on a technology that had been undergoing refinement for almost 200 years. You have probably used pneumatic propulsion yourself- You know, when you go to the drive-thru at the bank to make a deposit, and one of those plastic capsules drops down through a lucite tube with a pen and a deposit slip in it?
Pneumatic transport technology was invented in 1836. It captured the collective imagination of the techno-utopians of the 19th century. The potential for the technology was nearly limitless – imagine automated mail delivery, massive underground pneumatic networks that delivered packages right to your house from a central station. What if you could pack something up, drop it into a pneumatic transport capsule, and have your friend on the other side of town receive it in a minute or two?
City projects in the mid 19th century created just such pneumatic networks. There was a citywide pneumatic post system in London by 1866 which functioned through the 1980’s, and if you are ever lucky enough to go to Prague and tour the old post office (as I have) you can see the pneumatic post (installed in 1886) which delivered mail to the entire city until it was damaged in a flood in 2003. Rumor has it that one of the pneumatic lines in London was big enough for a person to fit inside the capsule, and that some daredevils attempted the ride.
It’s true. In the 1860’s every tech-minded person knew that Pneumatic Propulsion Trains, like the Hyperloop Alpha of 2013, were the future of public transportation.
Jules Verne’s 1863 novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, describes a pneumatic propulsion train inside of an enclosed steel tube in which air pressure moves a giant disk, which is stabilized and attached to the train with “electromagnetic force.” Verne’s system would ride on a cushion of air and it would be capable of speeds exceeding 1000 kmh, just beyond the sound barrier. Verne wrote a very good description of a MagLev pneumatic propulsion train. Essentially, Verne’s novel describes the Hyperloop with many of the same engineering details Elon Musk used in 2013, exactly 150 years later.
So what am I trying to say here? That Elon Musk isn’t a Randian Prometheus to be worshipped as a god among mortals? That he isn’t Tony Stark? (I desperately want SOMEONE to become Iron Man, by the way) That he isn’t a genius? That he plagiarized the idea of the Hyperloop from a 150-year-old public domain science fiction novel? None of these, he may well be the reincarnation of Tesla-that would be great! But all of this egoism obfuscates the true nature of creativity.
This is my argument: Creativity isn’t some bolt-from-the-blue magic, it isn’t the “specialness” of ubermensches that are different from everyone else. It is just work; it’s the work of sensitizing yourself to ideas in their simplest and most outrageous forms, and communicating those ideas. Creativity never happens in isolation, it happens in network, when people interact.
After the successful pneumatic post of the 1860’s why didn’t people move on to build the Hyperloop 150 years ago? It was because the context was wrong. Everyone liked the idea, but no one made it. Internal combustion engines advanced, and addressed the immediate transportation crisis (the great horse manure crisis of 1894).
There was no more social impetus behind pneumatic travel; the niche had been filled. But now, a century and a half has gone by, and our fascination with combustion-based travel is waning. We are faced with new environmental concerns and dwindling oil resources.
Societal space is starting to open up once more and we are ready to consider pneumatic transportation again- as long as it is presented to us as beautiful, organic and star-trekky (the same way that the Model-T was presented at the dawn of the 20th century).
I’m not saying Elon Musk isn’t a genius. I’m just saying he watches Star Trek and plays with magnets. He most likely shoots spit wads. I’m sure he’s definitely read Jules Verne. And that’s the true nature of genius, to play, to enquire, to pick up a dog-eared sci-fi paperback from a garage sale and take it seriously. To build up ideas others discard or trivialize. To communicate and antagonize.
Don’t be convinced by the cinema archetypes, creativity is not the provenance of creepazoids with weird hair hallucinating patterns and theories, possessed by some other-human power beyond you and I. It is something that all of us do every day, when you get dressed in the morning and when you cook breakfast. Every life has a creative arc, maybe it’s poetry, or baking, or parenting, or maybe for some of us it’s MagLev pneumatic propulsion transport systems. The point is to build your arc with integrity, with energy and discipline, to give it your all and to take it seriously and finally, to share it. Don’t let it slip through your fingers, and don’t let it go unseen, because that’s lame and selfish. All creative practice is interconnected, and your contributions, and the contributions of Jules Verne, and Jack Kirby (the creator of Iron Man) are just as important as those of Elon Musk’s. And what’s more, they are all connected. They form a broader fabric, and we are all a part of it.