Histories: The spinning-top railway

By Mick Hamer When Winston Churchill took a ride on the new monorail at the Japan-British exhibition of 1910 he was instantly captivated and insisted on driving it himself. “The invention proved as interesting to the statesman as a new toy would to a child,” reported the Daily Mail. Churchill, who was then British home secretary, was so impressed that the following week – over a long lunch at the Ritz – he persuaded the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer to try for themselves this new wonder of the age. Louis Brennan, the monorail’s inventor, had every reason to feel pleased. “Sir, your invention promises to revolutionise the railway systems of the world,” said Churchill. It didn’t. So what went wrong? IT WAS the world’s first true monorail, a train that ran upright on a single rail. And it was the first tilting train. Most monorails are stable either because they straddle a beam, like saddlebags on either side of a donkey, or they hang from an overhead rail. Louis Brennan’s train was completely different: not only could it balance on a single rail with no visible means of support, it also tilted as it rounded bends like a motorcyclist leaning into a curve – courtesy of a pair of giant gyroscopes. Brennan had made his name and a fortune from his first invention, a steerable torpedo. Born in Ireland in 1852, at the age of 9 Brennan sailed with his family to Australia, where in 1877 he invented the world’s first guided missile,
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