Imagine if you will in the era of steam locomotives, trains being pulled along by horses, walking on conveyor belts. This was the idea shown off in London in 1850, and a year later at the Great Exhibition.

(c) Illustrated London News Group – British Newspaper Archive

While it looks utterly barmy to replace steam engines with horses on conveyor belts, there was a lot of serious thought behind the idea, to the point that it was even tested by the South Western Railway at Nine Elms as a possible replacement for steam trains.

The problem with steam trains is while relatively powerful, they were also very expensive to run, as coal was not cheap, and thought to be very wasteful in how they converted heat into motion due to the very heavy engine that was needed to contain the pressure of the steam.

So people had started looking at whether horses, a well known and understood method of propulsion, could be an alternative. Indeed, the very earliest trains had been pulled by horses, on iron-roads, which were essentially a carriage pulled by a horse over an early railway track.

The steam engine was in the ascendant but hadn’t totally secured its position, so there was an opportunity for a rival – and in the 1840s, the Italian engineer, Clemente Masserano developed the Impulsoria.

The idea was comparatively simple, although it had taken many years to get the design to work. A treadmill on an incline would be large enough for horses to walk on, and then the treadmill’s wheels would be connected to gears and then to the main wheels that would drive the “engine”. Although the horses could only walk forwards, the gearing allowed for the engine to reverse when needed.

Built in Italy, it was shipped to London for trials by the South Western Railway, where it proved its ability to haul a train of 20 carriages up slopes, and achieved speeds of 7 miles per hour. It was even thought that it could be upgraded to as fast as 20 miles per hour — a shocking speed, and faster than a steam train could achieve at the time.

Not only faster than a steam train but also cheaper. Four horses would cost around eight shillings to use for a day, versus the £6 per day an equivalent coke based steam engine would cost.

Due to the use of horses, which have limits on how much work they can do, the Impulsoria was expected to be only for use on branch lines, rather than the national railway, but the idea sparked interest in a few areas.

Not in the USA though, where Scientific American reported on the Impulsoria rather dismissively adding that “such is the present state of invention in Italy – the land of Galileo. Well, how the mighty are fallen”

An improved version was shown off a year later, at the Great Exhibition, and another two years later appeared in Germany. Then the idea vanished almost without trace.

Even if it had been put to commercial use, it would have had a very short life as steam engine technology was improving rapidly, and within the decade locomotives considerably more powerful than the Impulsoria were on the market.

The horse-powered locomotives would have all had to be scrapped.

(c) Illustrated London News Group – British Newspaper Archive


The Engineer and Machinist, Issues 1-3

Illustrated London News – Saturday 22 June 1850

Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the year 1849

Scientific American Volume 05 Number 43 (July 1850)


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  1. V says:

    Wasn’t something very similar proposed for the Rainhill Trials in 1829? It was never built, as far as I know.

  2. Melvyn says:

    I suppose they were the original High Steed Trains !

    One use might have been to power tram systems via cables as used in SAN Francisco where the horses would provide the power to move the cables that haul the trams .

  3. JP says:

    I’m sure that I scribbled such a contraption on my exercise book back in double maths at school. Straight out of the Wacky Races school of transportation too.

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