Insane early travel attempts that failed miserably

Living in a time of highly successful mass transit, it's sometimes hard to imagine things being any other way. However, back before the now-familiar systems were developed, a lot of designs were vying for the title of Transport Maestro, and as a result it was open season on wacky ideas. Dozens of these concepts were either too far ahead of their time, misguided pursuits of a failed technology, or simply bad ideas that never had a hope of meeting expectations, such as the following forms of transport that you probably won't be using anytime soon.

Beach Pneumatic Transit

In the late 19th century, inventor Alfred Ely Beach had an idea for a transit system that was powered by air pressure. He was so enthusiastic about the idea, he applied to the city of New York for a permit to build a subway based on the principle, though they denied him. He was, instead, granted a permit to build a pneumatic package delivery system, but he must have felt humans are basically fleshy packages themselves, because he built a human-sized demonstration tunnel instead. At 300 feet long (with only one station) when it opened in 1870, the finished tunnel wasn't going to get anyone anywhere useful, and it is hard to say whether it would have ever worked properly had Beach been allowed to make it bigger. But that didn't matter, because by 1897 the demonstration line closed down, the idea being rendered obsolete by the development of electric trains.

In hindsight, Washington DC probably would have made a better demonstration site than New York, since the residents there are much more interested in things that blow a lot of hot air.


Airships were all the rage at the beginning of the 20th century, being used as both luxury liners for the wealthy, and as (slow and vulnerable) bombers during World War I. Interest peaked in the 1930s when transatlantic crossings started, and even the Empire State Building had a mast on top for mooring the massive flying sausages. Unfortunately, in order to make these beasts float, a very light gas was required—although helium was safest, it was also expensive. So most airships were filled with the very light—but also disastrously flammable—hydrogen, a decision which would spell the end of the airship as mass transportation.

By 1937, the German airship Hindenburg had made a number of successful Atlantic crossings, going between Germany and New Jersey. But on May 6th of that year, as it was approaching its mooring in New Jersey, it burst into flames and, in mere moments, was completely destroyed. The whole event was caught on film and broadcast on the radio, and as fast as the Hindenburg met its end, public confidence in the gigantic flying kegs plummeted even faster.


Monowheels have always been the darling of science fiction but, remarkably, their history dates back almost 150 years. The motivation for pursuing the concept is usually simplicity, but since the design inevitably compromises stability, the only thing that really becomes simple is crashing. Passenger capacity is also limited to one, and except in the presence of a solid wall, stopping fast is virtually impossible. Dr. J.H. Purves made a famous effort to popularize the single-wheeled transport in 1932, but the idea never really took off.

Somehow, despite many, many its drawbacks, the monowheel continues to inspire interest, with several working versions operating today. The most "successful" modern monowheel is built by American Kerry McLean, but the use of more advanced technology obviously hasn't advanced the thing's stability, as McLean was nearly killed demonstrating one in 2001. It could be that, despite 150 years of development, the monowheel is still simply ahead of its time … but in all likelihood, it will never be anything more than a dangerous curiosity.

Three-wheeled vehicles

While it's true that you will occasionally see a motorized tricycle trundling along the highway, three-wheeled cars are quite a bit rarer, and you definitely won't see one at your local dealership any time soon. Three-wheeled vehicles offer the potential advantages of lower rolling resistance, relative mechanical simplicity, and significantly improved aerodynamics. But despite all this, as well as numerous attempts to develop the concept, they have never captured the public's imagination. Versions exist with either two wheels at the front, which is the most stable and aerodynamic configuration, or two wheels at the back, which is mechanically simplest.

The most successful three-wheeled vehicle was the Reliant Robin, built on and off in England between 1973 and 2002. Its success was centered on its fuel economy and affordability, which was a result of a small engine and light fiberglass bodywork, as well as the fact that you didn't need a full driving license to operate one. Thus it became a favorite among the working class, who could now afford to not only stay warm and dry, but could do it without having to pass another test. Unfortunately, despite this modest success, the Reliant Robin's most enduring legacy is being the butt of the popular culture joke. The only true advantage offered by these motorized tricycles is to attract attention, because they're really just the worst parts of cars and motorcycles mashed together.

Caproni Ca.60 Noviplano flying boat

In order for an aircraft to leave the ground, the amount of lift generated by the wings must exceed the amount required to lift the weight of the aircraft. If an aircraft doesn't achieve this, then it either has to lose weight, or produce more lift. Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni must have hit this problem in 1919, while developing his new aircraft, the Caproni Ca.60 Transaereo flying boat, also known as the Noviplano. But instead of trying to cut weight, he decided to create more lift, and he did it the only way he could: by adding more wings … and then some more … and a few more after that. Caproni stopped adding wings once he reached nine (hence the name Noviplano)—whether he stopped because he finally found enough lift, or simply because he ran out of room for any more, is not totally clear.

Intended to take off and land on water, and carry 100 passengers on transatlantic flights, the Noviplano only achieved the first of these goals. Honestly, with only two takeoffs and one successful landing to its name—having crashed on its second test flight in 1921—it can barely even lay claim to that. If love is blind, then Caproni must have been head over heels with this monstrosity to let it get as far as it did. If he had ever actually seen it "in the cold light of day," so to speak, it never would have made it off the drawing board.