Before sport became a subject for record books, there was just the realisation that humans (upright, no tail) were rather slow compared to things they tried to catch: the kangaroo managed 45 mph, the cheetah 85 mph, the spine-tailed swift 220 mph. Before steam and motorisation, humans probably managed about 35 mph on ice sledges and horses. For a while the fastest human by accident was probably Frank Ebrington, the occupant of an uncoupled carriage as it sped down the Kingstown–Dalkey (vacuum-pumped) atmospheric railway near Dublin, at an estimated speed of 84 mph in 1843.
Following successful experiments with small-scale models, the developers of the new Kingstown-Dalkey railway opted for Brunel’s system, and in July 1844 they opened the world’s first commercial atmospheric railway to considerable international attention. (A second atmospheric railway, the South Devon line, opened some months later on an experimental basis, was not fully operational until 1847, and closed a year later; a third, built in Paris, lasted for a number of years.)
A steam engine located in Dalkey generated the power to pull the trains uphill from Kingstown; for the return journey they simply fell slowly downhill under gravity – and if the momentum was not enough to carry the train into Kingstown station, third-class passengers were expected to get out and push.
The pneumatic system itself was intricate. First, a cast-iron pipe was laid between the railway tracks, and then an airtight piston in the pipe was connected to the train. The steam engine at Dalkey pumped air out of the pipe ahead of the train, creating a vacuum; and the atmospheric pressure of the air behind the piston pushed the train along.
The pipe had a narrow slot along its top through which the piston arm moved; a complex flap and valve system let the piston arm pass, but otherwise kept the slot closed; and wheels and rollers on the underside of the train manoeuvred the flap open as required, and pressed it back in place afterwards.
To ensure a tight seal the flap was also greased, but maintaining an airtight seal was difficult. The grease attracted rats which ate the leather; in summer, the grease melted away, and in winter the leather froze. Running the engine and pumping station intermittently was also costly.
Nevertheless, the Kingstown-Dalkey railway operated successfully for 10 years, following the old tramway cutting linking Dalkey quarry and Kingstown. Trains ran every half-hour between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., averaging 30 miles an hour uphill to Dalkey, and 20 miles an hour when falling to Kingstown.
Amazingly, on one test run, the train actually broke the world speed record, averaging 84 miles an hour. Admittedly, only one carriage was used (all the others were uncoupled), but on that day the sole occupant, one Frank Ebrington, became the fastest man on Earth.