The world’s most scenic railway journeys, hosted by you know who – Season 7, Episode 7 – The Aerostatischen Bahn / Luftballon-Eisenbahn of Friedrich Volderauer
Guten Morgen, mein Lesefreund. Wie geht’s? Would you like to join me in a little jaunt down the yellow brick road of memory lane to a beer garden near you? Wunderbar! The topic of this weekend’s issue of our intellectually rewarding and stimulating blog / bulletin / thingee is not a brewery, however. Nay. Nonetheless, grab yourself a stein of non alcoholic beer and some giant pretzels, and join me at a table in the shade, and…
Yes, the topic of this weekend, the first weekend of the 7th year during which I have had the pleasure of bringing to your attention a variety of relatively interesting topics. Lazy bum that I am, yours truly thought that merging the July 1st issue of our you know what with the first Sunday of July issue of that same stunning publication would be a good idea. Besides, I am the one at the keyboard – with a stein of non alcoholic beer, but back to our story.
Once upon a time… You have a question, my reading friend? Was the first paragraph of this article lifted almost verbatim from a recent issue of our inscrutable blog / bulletin / thingee, you ask? Err, yes, it was. Are you not the kind of person who internalises today’s green mantra, namely recycle, reduce, repair and reuse? Let us now move on, and relax.
Once upon a time, in June 1844 to be more specific, Friedrich Volderauer was born, in Salzburg, Empire of Austria. He attended a technical high school which still existed as of 2023, under a different name of course.
Volderauer spent some time in Vienna, Empire of Austria, before joining the family’s paint and material goods business, in Salzburg. Indeed, Volderauer’s father planned to hand him the reins of that firm in 1867 so that he could run it with his brother in law, Lorenzo Montel, the spouse of his sister, Maria Volderauer. The young Volderauer did not seem all that keen to follow in his father’s footsteps, however. Indeed, he spent much of the period between 1867 and 1870 crisscrossing Europe.
In the end, financial difficulties and, perhaps, the obvious lack of enthusiasm of his son, forced the elder Volderauer to hand over the family business to a nephew, Friedrich Radauer, in 1870.
Now liberated from having to follow in his father’s footsteps, Volderauer settled in Salzburg, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and… Yes, the younger Volderauer, the son. As I was saying (typing?), Volderauer settled in Salzburg and began to work on various ideas and inventions. Mind you, he also wrote quite a bit. Until 1881, for example, Volderauer wrote a number of texts for the daily newspaper Salzburger Landeszeitung of… Salzburg. But back to Volderauer’s inventions.
Around February 1897, Volderauer obtained a concession which put a preliminary stamp of approval upon an idea whose safety and feasibility had been demonstrated years before, or maybe as late as 1896, in Salzburg, by Volderauer and a partner by the name of M.I.L. Brackebusch, who was apparently an engineer. The efforts made by that dynamic duo to demonstrate the safety and feasibility of their idea had seemingly included a small model. The preparatory work was to take place over a period of 10 or so months.
Incidentally, the early 1897 decision came as a result of discussions with a local committee which had begun in 1896, followed by an October 1896 decision by a government department.
The idea in question was, you guessed it, the Aerostatischen Bahn / Luftballon-Eisenbahn, in other words an aerostatic railway / balloon railway. Would you believe that Volderauer might, I repeat might, have begun to work on that mountain railway idea in the late 1870s?
The initial main purpose of Volderauer’s mountain railway was to link the spa town of Bad-Reichenhall, Bavaria, Bavaria being one of the kingdoms which made up the German Empire, and the scenic summit of the Hochstaufen. Although located not too, too far from Salzburg, that small mountain located within the Chiemgau Alps was also in Bavaria.
Reaching the summit of the Hochstaufen in order to profit from the sublimely beautiful view it offered was no picnic during the 1890s, my reading friend. The climb was both tedious and long. It could be even dangerous if one was not careful.
The Aerostatischen Bahn would have changed everything.
Incidentally, The Wide World Magazine, the source of the illustration you saw not too long ago and a British illustrated monthly magazine whose motto was apparently “Truth is stranger than fiction,” was not the first publication containing an article about the Aerostatischen Bahn. Nay. The American popular science illustrated weekly magazine Scientific American, a popular publication, had published an article on that fascinating railway in early November 1897, eight months before The Wide World Magazine. Better yet, the American article was based on a German one, published in late September 1897 by another popular illustrated weekly magazine, Illustrirte Zeitung. And that German article might not have been the first to be published either.
To climb the Hochstaufen, the operator unlocked the mechanism which held captive the carriage / nacelle and its passengers. No, not me. Had yours truly been present at the time in the parallel universe where the Aerostatischen Bahn existed, I would not have stepped aboard that mountain railway for all the wealth on Earth. Am I a Gallus gallus domesticus, you ask, my amused reading friend? You bet, but back to our visit to said parallel universe.
At it slowly climbed the mountain, thanks to its balloon, the carriage / nacelle of the Aerostatischen Bahn gripped the single T-shaped rail at the sides and underneath the flange. When it reached the summit, the operator locked the carriage / nacelle in position to allow the passengers to disembark.
In theory at least, the track of our aerostatic railway would be 3 or so times shorter than that of a conventional cog railway / cogwheel railway / rack railway / rack-and-pinion railway. As a result, it would be able to reach its destination at least 3 or so times faster than such a railway.
A cog railway, if you must know, is a railway whose two running rails are supplemented by a toothed rack rail mounted in between. Such a configuration allows a mountain railway to negotiate steep grades, but I digress.
As the passengers of the Aerostatischen Bahn disembarked, separate weights were apparently put on board to compensate for the change in… weight. As new passengers embarked, said weights were unloaded as required. Mind you, it was also possible that similar weights were put on board at specific locations as the Aerostatischen Bahn went up the mountain.
One had to wonder if the passengers were weighed, as a group perhaps, before they got on board, and this both at the bottom and top of the Hochstaufen, but back to our journey.
To come down the Hochstaufen, the operator unlocked the mechanism which held captive the carriage / nacelle and its passengers. That time around, gravity was the propelling force. You see, water ballast had been taken aboard the carriage / nacelle at the summit to counterbalance the lifting capacity of the balloon. And yes, the operator could open the tap on the water tank at any time to slow down the descent, or stop it altogether.
The carriage / nacelle could carry up to 500 or so kilogrammes (1 100 or so pounds) of water. In windy conditions, it carried less water, to reduce the stress between it and the balloon.
And yes, you are probably right, my reading friend. That wind would have probably increased the stress felt by the passengers. All operations came to a stop is the weather became stormy, by the way. One also had to wonder how easy, or safe, it would have been to go up and down the Hochstaufen in winter time.
This being said (typed?), given
- the empty weight of the Aerostatischen Bahn which hovered around 2 100 or so kilogrammes (4 630 or so pounds), and
- the lifting capacity of slightly less than 4 800 kilogrammes (slightly less than 10 580 pounds) of its 20 metre (65.5 or so feet) diameter balloon,
said Aerostatischen Bahn had a useful load of 2 700 or so kilogrammes (5 950 or so pounds).
Removing the ballast water and a good safety margin from that total meant that the Aerostatischen Bahn was able to bring down the mountain humans weighing a total of 1 500 or so kilogrammes (3 300 or so pounds) – or 1 operator and 10 or 11 happy / lucky couples wearing the heavy and bulky clothing of the time.
Whether or not the Aerostatischen Bahn was able to carry more humans on the way up was / is open to question. There was after all only so much room in the carriage / nacelle.
Incidentally, the balloon in question was undoubtedly filled with hydrogen, using a generator located at the base of the mountain. Helium was not available in huge quantities in the 1890s and would have been ginormously expensive anyway.
Although available in huge quantities at a pretty low cost, lower than that of hydrogen perhaps, coal gas / lighting gas, a lighter than air gas mixture produced from… coal and used for… lighting, was far less efficient than hydrogen. To achieve a lifting capacity of slightly less than 4 800 kilogrammes (slightly less than 10 580 pounds) with coal gas, the Aerostatischen Bahn would have needed a balloon with a diameter of 23.2 metres (76 or so feet) to 24.4 metres (80 or so feet), which did not fit the dimensions mentioned in 1897.
Let us now abandon the parallel universe we were in to return to the world of woe which is ours.
And yes, even though the Aerostatischen Bahn could go up and down the Hochstaufen many times within the space of a single day, its overall profitability might have been open to question. You are the one who is digressing this time, my reading friend. Let us put our train of thought back on track, shall we?
If one was to believe numerous English language press reports published in 1901 as far away as Australia, reports which might have originated from a single English language source, mind you, a source which might itself have originated from an as yet unknown German language source, possibly based in Geneva, Switzerland, Volderauer and Brackebusch began to test an honest to goodness Aerostatischen Bahn at some point in the spring of 1901. Said tests took place over a period of 3 or so months, presumably at Bad-Reichenhall. They were not marred by a single accident.
If one was to believe other press reports, published in 1906 in North America and as far as Australia, the forementioned Aerostatischen Bahn went in operation at Bad-Reichenhall at some point in the spring of that year. Volderauer went up and down the Hochstaufen dozens of times, both alone and with people. The carriage / nacelle of Volderauer’s railway could accommodate up to 10 people, quite a drop since the 1890s version. The inventor was pleased to point out that his invention could be fastened on the side of a multitude of mountains. The track could even cross valleys separating two mountains. Volderauer claimed that his Aerostatischen Bahn would replace funicular railways the world over. It was cheap to build and operate, and offered its passengers a delightful sensation.
As positive as the reports were, some of the information yours truly came across was not exactly reassuring. In any event, you be the judge: “No matter how strongly the wind may be blowing, and how desperately the captive [balloon] may tug at its steel cable, it cannot get away, but must ascend directly over the guiding steel rail.”
At the risk of sounding like a total Gallus gallus domesticus, yours truly shudders at the thought of the gyrations the carriage / nacelle of the Aerostatischen Bahn might have undertaken in such conditions.
Mind you, a 1906 description of the descent of the carriage / nacelle in normal conditions was also quite interesting: “It isn’t as romantic as the ascent – very much, in fact, like dragging a boy out of a tree by his trousers.”
Now, I ask you, my reading friend, would your parents have ever considered dragging you out of a tree by your trousers? I very much doubt mine would have done such a thing, not that I would ever have gone up a tree anyway, but let us not dwell.
And here is a drawing which accompanied one of the press reports dating from 1906.
A 1906 view of the aerostatic railway / balloon railway proposed by Friedrich Volderauer. Anon., “A Passenger Railway Operated by Balloon.” The Washington Herald, 11 November 1906, 7.
Now, I ask you, again, my objective reading friend, do you think the newspaper reports of 1901 and 1906 were based on facts? You too, eh. Well, while it was true that an Aerostatischen Bahn project was put forward around 1894-96, it never reached a realistic test phase and was quickly rejected. One can only hope that the managements of the newspapers which published said 1901 and 1906 articles sincerely believed that what they were publishing was true.
In any event, Volderauer was undoubtedly (very?) disappointed by the failure of his idea. That gentleman left our Earth in January 1908. He was 63 years old.
Interestingly enough, yours truly came across a few summer of 1885 articles mentioning the proposed construction of an aerostatic railway on the Gaisberg, a small mountain within the Northern Limestone Alps located near Salzburg, in what was still the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Volderauer’s name was not mentioned but it is entirely possible that he was the instigator of that short lived project.
Short lived, you ask, my inquisitive reading friend? Yes, short lived. You see, a narrow gage cog railway known as the Gaisbergbahn was inaugurated in May 1887. The people behind that project had applied for a concession as early as July 1885.
Mind you, in December 1885, the Handelsministerium, in other words the Austrian department of trade, acting on the unanimous opinion of professors of technology and railway directors on the one hand, and, on the other hand, of the kaiserlich-königlich General-Direction der österreichischen Staatsbahnen, in other words, again, the imperial-royal general directorate of the Austrian state railways, had politely turned down the request made by an unidentified individual for the granting of a preliminary license for the construction of an aerostatic railway on two relatively small mountains, the Schafberg and the Schmittenhöhe, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, respectively located in the Northern Limestone Alps and the Kitzbühel Alps.
And no, Volderauer’s name was not mentioned here either but it is entirely possible that he was the instigator of those short lived projects.
And no, no one applied for a concession for a funicular railway, cog railway or cable car to be built on the Schafberg and the Schmittenhöhe. This being said (typed?), a cable car went into operation on the latter mountain in December 1927.
Was 1885 the year during which an aerostatic railway / balloon railway was proposed for the first time, you ask, my suitably bribed reading friend? Nay, it was not.
In late 1858 or early 1859, an architect hailing from Winterthur, Switzerland, came up with a proposal involving a railway of that type, between the southern shore of Lake Zug, in Switzerland, and the summit of the Rigi Kulm, a relatively small mountain located within the Schwyz Alps, in Switzerland. Better yet, Friedrich Albrecht published a 30 or so page book describing his concept, Die Luftbahn auf den Rigi. System einer Kommunikation mit Höhen, mit Anwendung der Luftballone als Lokomotive.
And here an illustration which showed Albrecht’s design in action.
The aerostatic railway of Friedrich Albrecht. Anon., “Die Luftbahn auf den Rigi.” Die Gartenlaube, (29?) March 1859, 181.
The carriage / nacelle of Albrecht’s aerostatic railway would have carried 20 people as well as 500 kilogrammes (1 100 pounds) of luggage. It would have ridden on a pair of rails, the upper pair of a set of two if you must know, on the way up, and on another pair of rails, the lower one, on the way down. The balloon would have been filled with hydrogen, using a generator presumably located at the base of the mountain. The balloon’s lifting capacity would have propelled the aerostatic railway upward while gravity and ballast water would have propelled it downward.
All in all, Albrecht’s design was quite similar to that of Volderauer, a similarity which raises an interesting question: did the latter know about the project put forward by the former?
Another similarity between the designs of Albrecht and Volderauer was their lack of success. You see, the Swiss government politely ignored Albrecht’s design. As it turned out, the Swiss engineer Niklaus Riggenbach eventually developed a new type of cog railway which eventually met with the approval of the government. The Rigibahn, the very first mountain railway in Europe, was opened to the public in May 1871. An extension of its track allowed it to reach the summit of the Rigi Kulm in June 1873, and…
You have a question, my inquisitive reading friend? You wish to have tiny bit of information on Die Gartenlaube, the periodical from which yours truly extracted the illustration you reviewed not too long ago? Ahh, music to my ears. Know then that Die Gartenlaube was a very successful German language illustrated weekly magazine published in Saxony, a member of the German confederation, before that kingdom joined the North German confederation and, later, the German Empire. If truth be told, it was the first successful mass-circulation German language illustrated magazine and a forerunner of all modern magazines. In its heyday, in the late 19th century, Die Gartenlaube had one of the largest, if not the largest readership of any publication on planet Earth, but back to our story. Almost.
Would you believe that my father and some other experienced machinists from the textile mill of Sherbrooke, Québec, of Dominion Textile Incorporated of Montréal, Québec, spent several weeks in… Winterthur, at the factory of Gebrüder Sulzer Aktiengesellschaft, in the mid-1970s, I believe, to learn how to operate and repair the new looms purchased by the Québec textile giant? When they returned, my father and the other experienced machinists trained other machinists. Ours is a small world, is it not?
Of course, I will not bust your chops by pointing out that Gebrüder Sulzer was mentioned in an August 2018 issue of our fascinating blog / bulletin / thingee, or that Dominion Textile was mentioned there several times since that same month.
You are welcome, but back to our story.
Would you believe that another Swiss architect, Carl Reichlin of Schwyz, Switzerland, might, I repeat might, have done some work on an aerostatic railway around 1854? One had / has to wonder if Albrecht knew about that concept, but I digress.
One thing is worth pointing out, however. Albrecht might have had nothing to do with the 1885 project. He might indeed have left this world in 1878, at the age of 46 or so. This being said (typed?), Reichlin might, perhaps, have been involved in that 1885 project. You see, he might have died in 1895, at the age of 73 or so, but back to our topic.
As of 2023, the people interested in reaching the summit of the Hochstaufen still had to do it the hard way. There was / is no road, funicular railway, cog railway or cable car. And no, yours truly cannot state with any degree of certainty if a helicopter pilot could find a spot to land up there.
And that is it for this week, my reading friend. Auf Wiedersehen und bis nächste Woche, so das Fliegende Spaghettimonster will, and…
Was this article yet another demonstration of my strong affinity toward the unusual, the strange, the odd looking, etc., you ask, my reading friend? You bet.
This writer wishes to thank the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.