Monday March 13, 2006
"We're getting there." That was the motto of British Rail in its 1980s heyday. But how they thought they might get there will come as a surprise to even diehard trainspotters: a decade earlier engineers had patented plans to transport passengers by nuclear-powered flying saucer, writes Alok Jha
The plans for the space vehicle were discovered on the website of the European Patent Office by a student. "I thought it must be a joke at first," he said, electing to stay anonymous. "It's the sort of thing you only read about in science fiction books."
His discovery shows that in 1973 an inventor, Charles Osmond Frederick, patented the design for a craft powered by laser-controlled thermonuclear fusion. Designed to reach high speeds in space, it was meant to move us around the globe and even to other planets.
Its "lifting platform" was designed for the British Railways Board and the patent was filed under the name of Jensen and Son. The disc would have had a flat, slightly concave underside, the patent said. "A controlled thermonuclear fusion reaction is ignited by one or more pulsed laser beams produced by lasers and reflected or focused on to a central reaction zone on the underside of the platform."
Unsurprisingly, space scientists have thrown cold water on the designs. Michel van Baal, of the European Space Agency, said the craft would need an "unbelievable amount of energy" to fly. "I have had a look at the plans, and they don't look very serious to me at all."
Patents can be taken out for any type of invention without the need for a working example. Inventors can even patent designs for machines that are physically impossible to build.
The patent described a power source that "would enable very high velocities to be attained in a space vehicle, and in fact the prolonged acceleration of the vehicle may in some circumstances be used to simulate gravity". Papers filed with the patent also show detailed cross-sections of the proposed space vehicle and a view of the underside. Dr Van Baal said Mr Frederick's design was based on a fusion process that did not yet exist.
Thermonuclear fusion is seen as a potentially near limitless supply of energy and governments around the world have invested billions in developing it. The latest effort is a joint international experimental nuclear reactor, called Iter, which will fuse a form of heavy water to release energy. Theoretically at least. Unfortunately, any commercial application of the technology is still at least 50 years away, even according to the scientists who believe it could work one day.
Colin Pillinger, the space scientist who led the doomed Beagle 2 mission to Mars, said: "I think the plans are fascinating; it really looks like a flying saucer. Quite what British Rail had in mind I have no idea. It is very unusual ... if I hadn't seen the documents I wouldn't have believed it."
The student said: "The flying saucer looks just like something out of a science fiction comic. It's amazing that British Rail actually developed these plans. They obviously believed people would be transported around space to different planets in the future. Who knows, maybe in the next 50 years they will be proved right."
Unfortunately for Mr Frederick, the flying saucer idea never took off, and the patent has now lapsed.