Pt 10720
Compressed air train – AIR PUNK!

Will steam power give way to compressed air for driving locomotives and hauling fast passenger trains? That is the vision of William E. Boyette, of Atlanta, Ga., whose amazing challenge to the iron horse—a monster truck-shaped locomotive propelled by compressed air—was about to undergo a trial run between Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla., at this writing. The forty-foot locomotive, illustrated above, is designed to attain a maximum speed of 125 miles an hour. Its power is obtained from air compressed to a pressure of 400 pounds to the square inch and carried in tanks behind the cab. Should the pressure in the tanks drop below 360 pounds, a pump operated by electric storage batteries automatically replenishes them. Besides high speed, Boyette claims the advantage of exceptional economy in operation.

Popular Science Feb, 1934

Blow your friends away as you send this 25-cent rocket hundreds of feet in the air. Thanks go to Rock Schertle for the original article in MAKE, Volume 15. To download The Compressed Air Rocket video click here and subscribe in iTunes. Check out the complete Compressed Air Rocket article in MAKE Volume 15 and you can see that in our Digital Edition.



MAKE subscriber sliptonic previously sent his enhanced pinewood derby car:

  • Garrett

    It’s not air, it’s just really thin steam!

  • Simon

    The compressed air locomotive as described is just silly. How long can it run at 125MPH? It’s not an ‘amazing challenge’ to the iron horse as stated. And having batteries to run compressors to recompress the tanks is really very, very bad. Anyone with any basic understanding of physics can see that.

    That said compressed air (fireless) locomotives did exist for specailised use:

    • Chris W

      I have a basic understanding of physics, but couldn’t say it was silly without doing a lot of calculations. Mr Boyette may have not succeeded, and perhaps he should have done more calculations, but he was not silly. I admire his efforts.

      • Simon

        Maybe you’re right, perhaps he was a genuis but the story just smacks of dodgy science. These articles really don’t say enough to know for sure so maybe silly is a bit harsh.

        But I did find another link to the same invention here with a diagram of how the system is supposed to work:

        From that page: “FROM coast to coast by rail in 24 hours, traveling literally on air—that is what W. E. Boyette of Atlanta, Georgia, claims for his invention, a railroad engine that runs almost entirely on air. Air for fuel—speeds of up to 125 miles an hour on rails—low transportation costs-—these are possibilities conjured by Boyette’s air electric car. After being started by batteries, the car needs only air to keep it running—a close approach to perpetual motion. Inventor Boyette claims his invention is quite simple, even though it is contrary to all principles of engineering. Large tanks on the sides of the car are pumped with compressed air by a starting air compressor which is driven by an auxiliary electric motor and 4800 pound storage battery set. Compressed air then operates the air engine connected to the driving wheels, bringing the car up to speed. As the car moves, a large air compressor directly connected to the front wheels pumps air back into the tanks. An electric generator connected to the farthest rear pair of wheels is continually charging the batteries. Thus the movement of the car refills the air tanks and partly recharges the batteries. With the engine pulling two passenger coaches over a 250 mile rail run, it is said that about $2.50 worth of electricity for fully charging the batteries at the end of the run will be the only fuel expense.”

        When people start mentioning perpetual motion in ideas it is often a red flag that something hasn’t been thought through fully. To me it sounds to much like saying hook a generator up to the front wheels of your electric car charging the batteries that are driving the rear wheels with an electric motor only this guy has the added complication of air compressors and air powered engines in the mix.

        Also William E. Boyette reminds me too much of Wile E. Coyote :)

  • Matt Jones

    Bahaha, Compressed Air-Punk. Love it.

    You can’t go there without Jansen’s crazy use of pneumatics in his walkers.

  • Peter

    The technology is called stored steam (albeit a very low pressure example) It was (and in a few examples still is) used to power locomotives in environments where it is necessary to move railcars but where introducing sparks would be hazardous (coal power plants, old grain silos, chemical plants, steel mills, etc.) The locomotives were often 0-4-0s with a huge pressure vessel placed where you would normally find the boiler. the locomotives would work until they were down to only a few minutes of working pressure left then steam over to a nearby stationary boiler which would then refill the pressure vessel with steam. The most common version (built by H.K. Porter) had quoted running time of about 45 minutes per charge. Crews usually called them “fireless cookers”.

    The article does claim that this was a radical new technology, but really it was everyday use, if a bit specialized.

    Here’s a few links: