The man who imagined air-powered cars

Many Companies — Including India’s Tata Motors — Have Tried, But Professor Charles E. Tripler’s Dream Has Not Become Reality

March 1, 2017

The idea that cars can be made to run on heavily compressed air has been around a long time. It’s especially seductive now when cities are drowning in a soup of particulate matter. Anything with zero tailpipe emissions is welcome (although electricity for the air compressor will certainly cause pollution somewhere).

This report in a British journal from March 1899 shows just how long scientists and inventors have been toying with the idea of air-powered cars: “Professor Charles E. Tripler, of Brooklyn (New York), claims to have solved the problem of employing liquid air as a source of power for motors of all kinds.”

Tripler was a rich scientist who had worked on the liquefaction of gases. He claimed to have spent $100,000 from his own pocket on experiments over 15 years. And $100,000 was an enormous sum in the late 19th Century.

In the professor’s own words: “I am happy to announce that, after years of experiment, my process for manufacturing liquid air cheaply and in large quantities is not only successful, but I have solved the problem of harnessing this great power to machinery. My engine for this purpose works, and it requires only the perfection of a few mechanical details to realize its enormous utility as a motor for all kinds of machinery — for railway trains, steamships, motor-vehicles, in short, wheresoever great force is required.”

As to the “perfection of a few mechanical details,” the professor was still at it a year later, as this report from The Chicago Tribune of Saturday, January 20, 1900 shows.

Headlined ‘Some Tests With Liquid Air That Prof. Charles E. Tripler Will Make Before The Chicago Commercial Club’, the report says: “Professor Tripler will bring one gallon of liquid air to Chicago for (next) Saturday night’s work. If he feels encouraged by the results here he probably will make experiments in other cities.”

automobilismThe report then explains how air is liquefied. “Liquid air is made by the application of cold and by compression. Its own temperature is 312 degrees below zero. It is so cold that a tea kettle filled with it and placed on a cake of ice will boil as water does over fire. This is one of the experiments before the Commercial Club.”

The four photographs accompanying the report, from left to right, show Tripler in his lab with “a bouquet of roses that has been immersed in liquid air. The flowers retain their form, color, and fragrance, but when touched by the hand they fall to the floor as ashes do from a cigar.” That kind of scene still impresses cinema audiences. Remember Terminator 2 disintegrating after a liquid nitrogen bath?

In the second picture Tripler is drawing a dishful of liquid air from a cylinder. The third shows an assistant shifting a portable metal cylinder of liquid air. “The cylinder is carried in a wadded (insulated) hamper. It has been discovered that liquid air so packed can be kept for twelve days.”

The last picture is the most interesting as it shows the professor driving a nail into a board with a hammer “the head of which was made of mercury.” He froze or solidified the liquid metal using liquid air. Quite a showman was Tripler.

The report than dwells upon the commercial uses of liquid air: “An early promise is for use as a cheap refrigerating agent for fruit in transit. Its antiseptic qualities in surgery are now fascinating the medical men of New York.”

And then it comes to the question of motive power: “It is the expectation of Professor Tripler that liquid air will be used as a motive power, and he hopes in the course of evolution that it will be the long-sought agent to produce perpetual motion… It is his desire to be known as the discoverer of a new force and the inventor of the means of applying it for the benefit of mankind.”

The word ‘visionary’ comes to mind. So does ‘maverick’.

***

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