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An English Rose in Georgia: Transportation oddities
Lesley Francis new 2022.jpg

Who would have guessed when we moved to beautiful Bryan County Georgia 15 years ago that we would someday be living in the electric car manufacturing capital of the USA? I am not sure I had even heard of Hyundai back then, but soon they will be employing almost ten thousand of our neighbors, with perhaps a similar number of employees for their local suppliers.

So, I suppose electric cars might have been in the back of my mind the other day as I was catching up on some British newspapers from back in the land of my birth. My eye caught an article from the UK’s Guardian newspaper from their Shock of the Old series which highlights surprising things from the past. The article was titled ‘11 transport fantasies that never got off the ground – from jetpacks to swan-powered paragliders’, and written by Emma Beddington, a well-known freelance writer that I have always admired.

If we skip over the history of humanity’s very early forms of transport, which was probably a raft 20,000 years ago, and the wheel for transportation (around 6,000 years ago) and the domestication of horses (about the same time), we of course have to start the story of fantasy transportation with the great Leonardo da Vinci. Never short of radical ideas, da Vinci sketched out his idea for a flying boat in the 15th century, complete with bat-like wings, for a very dark, gothic design of which Batman would have been proud. A century and a half later, an English Bishop named Francis Godwin laid down plans for a wild swan-powered thing-a-ma-jig complete with pilot seat and sails. He modestly believed that by adding enough swans, it could break free of earth’s (then little-understood) gravity and fly mankind to the moon.

Fantasy ideas about hot air balloons and all sort of railway designs were all the rage in the late 1700s.

The steam age got the attention of Illustrator and satirist George Cruikshank, who took advantage of people’s worries about fast train travel and other seemingly unnatural ideas, so among other things he designed a pair of steam-powered boots.

In 1896 Prussian engineer Otto Lilienthal took his inspiration from birds to new heights (pun intended) in creating a number of flying machines. Some of his inventions actually had wings that flapped, and after some limited success with short flights, he developed a flapping glider he called the Normalapparate. He actually died trying to fly the Normalapparate, falling to his death from almost 50 feet.

That gets us to the monowheel.

Beddington says in the Guardian “If exploring transport visionaries has taught me anything, it is that since the dawn of wheels, men have wanted to sit inside them, hamster style”. Monowheels are the motorcycle- looking things with only one huge wheel with the driver/rider sitting inside it. These odd and fairly impractical vehicles made it back into the public’s consciousness in the movie Men in Black III when Will Smith and Josh Brolin raced after the bad guy in souped-up, futuristic versions of these. Most monowheels had thin wheels, but in 1930 Dr JA Purves invented the Dynasphere…a huge contraption several feet wide and big enough to carry passengers.

Unfortunately, it was prone to “gerbilling”…. the term Dr Purves used for the passenger spinning backward inside the wheel instead of the wheel spinning forward outside of the passenger!

Seashoes, a 1960 invention involving floating shoes and “duckfoot propellors”, was one that harked back to our friend Leonardo da Vinci, whose version of a similar idea was based on cork skis and paddle poles.

This idea has never really gone away as there are over 100 patents filed in the US Patent Office for variants on this theme. The latest is a 2016 patent that promises to be “the next big fitness trend” called FloatSki.

For further information visit www. Beddington also describes a few ideas that actually did eventually work in one form or another – escalators, monorails and jet packs – but it is the folks that wanted to be the next Karl Benz, Henry Ford or Elon Musk that I find most interesting. As Emma says: “There’s an innocent optimism to transport visionaries. They really thought they could change the world! They absolutely couldn’t! But all respect to them for trying: someone got lucky with the wheel once, didn’t they?”

God Bless America!

Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009.

She can be contacted at lesley@francis. com or via her full-service marketing agency at

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