Fast and Curious

Visions of Mobility III

From the invention of the wheel 5,000 years ago, to the tales and legends of the most diverse cultures, to today’s sci-fi blockbusters, the ability to cover huge distances in as short a time as possible has been one of humanity’s oldest dreams. BMW Magazine features a collection of some of the more unusual, visionary, and downright quirky examples from the history of mobility under the title “Fast and Curious: Visions of Mobility.” This issue’s selection includes Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and Noah’s Ark.

Marie-Sophie Müller


Sometime in the future, the supersonic Skreemr jet will streak across the sky at a staggering 6,800 mph. On the London–New York route, it would hardly be worth opening your newspaper, because 30 minutes later it would be time to disembark. The engineer Charles Bombardier, together with designer Ray Mattison, has spent years working on this vision. The passenger aircraft is based on two scramjet engines, which compress the intake of ambient air with immense force and eject it to provide thrust. Before the engines are activated, rockets propel the aircraft to four times the speed of sound. Not only must its materials be stress-resistant and able to withstand temperatures of around 1,800°, but the 75 passengers likewise need to have a robust constitution – not least because of the accelerated takeoff on electromagnetic rails.

Charles Bombardier’s supersonic jet – in the coming decades

Helix Pteron

Some 450 years before the first manned helicopter took to the skies (and returned successfully), Leonardo da Vinci developed the principle of the airscrew. This was a flying machine in which a spiral-shaped surface about 16 feet in diameter rotated around a wooden shaft. At the heart of Leonardo’s design was a circular platform connected to the spiral shaft by wire. He named his invention helix pteron, after the Greek words for “spiral” and “wing.” It was a formula later reprised to christen the modern word “helicopter.” Scrawled on his sketch was a description of a rotating platform powered by four people standing on it. Sadly, Leonardo lacked the materials required to turn his airscrew design into a test-worthy reality – yet the brilliant inventor nevertheless provided the blueprint for the helicopter as we know it today.

Leonardo da Vinci’s airscrew – 1463


When roads are narrow and space is at a premium, the only way is up. The early double-decker buses were inspired by 19th century horse-drawn carriages, where you climbed to the top deck via stairs at the rear. Fast-forward to the late 1950s, and the first Routemaster – a red two-story bus measuring first 27.5, then 30 feet in length – could be seen pulling out into a London street. At the back was an open platform you could hop on or off en route. These diesel-powered behemoths soon became an iconic feature of the British capital. The old Routemaster line was built to serve for 17 years, but many remained active well beyond that, their aluminum construction proving extremely hardy. In time, these were usurped by low-floor, handicapped-friendly buses. But the Routemaster made a comeback in 2012 in hybrid form, with a design inspired by its 1960s forebears. The new kid on the block is longer, at about 37 feet, but the hop-on/hop-off rear platform is still in place.

London’s double-decker bus - from 1956

Flying Sleighs

A few years ago, The Daily Telegraph worked out that Santa Claus’ sleigh would have to travel at 1,800 miles per second to deliver presents on time to all the children around the world. That’s quite a feat, and what makes it all the more baffling is that the old guy is still riding the same timeworn craft after all these years. But line up pictures of his current model alongside previous renditions, and you’ll find the same sleigh with eight-reindeer configuration. Santa goes back to the story of St. Nicholas, of course, and was first mentioned in an 1835 carol written by German poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben. From those origins, the legend spread, and portrayals became more frequent, prompting children to query their parents about the superpowers of this generous old man. Scientists are stumped - is some sort of special reindeer feed behind it all? Or a wormhole? We’re none the wiser. And as long as the kids’ presents continue to arrive on time, nor do we particularly care.

Santa’s present-carrier – from 1835


Why let water slow your progress from point A to point B when an amphibious bicycle can keep you moving on land and the wet stuff alike? The first such model we’re aware of had a frame with hollow floats on its sides and over its front wheel. Developed in 1910 by Baumgartner und Hirth of Waldshut in Germany’s Black Forest, the idea was ultimately unsuccessful. But 22 years later, French inventor E. Fabry presented his Cyclomer at a trade fair in Paris. Pontoons were now integrated into the wheels in the form of white spheres, each supported by two smaller satellites that folded up for use on land, then down when deep water barred the way. The elegant Paris-based businessman was thus able to travel to his office literally “along the Seine” – albeit rarely without getting his feet wet, one suspects. Neither of these bikes ever made it into series production, but the idea behind them has lived on: new amphibious bikes were developed in India and China in 2006 and 2009, for example.

Amphibious bicycle – 1932


San Francisco to Los Angeles in just 30 minutes: this is the view of the future promised by the Hyperloop. In 2013, entrepreneur and pioneer Elon Musk presented his futuristic vision of transit: a steel tube resting on pylons and fitted with solar panels, using magnetic levitation technology to carry 28 passengers at the speed of sound inside an aluminum capsule. The Hyperloop is Musk’s answer to California’s latest express-train project, slated for 2029, which the Silicon Valley businessman deems excessively costly and old-fashioned. The solar-powered transportation tube would be four times faster than the planned train, and less expensive. The first stage in the project involves construction of a five-mile test section in Quay Valley. Given the short distance involved, speed is to be capped here at 200 mph, whereas the eventual model should be capable of 760 mph, and will feature a capsule for people and cars, as well.

Solar-powered high-speed transport system – 2013

Noah’s Ark

What do you do when the world starts sinking underwater? Keep calm – and build a boat big enough to carry a cross-section of the Earth’s animal and human life. Then start all over again post-catastrophe. The biblical story of the Flood was preceded in the 19th century BCE by an account of a deluge in the Old Babylonian Atrachasis epic. The same story (with different heroes) is picked up in the Epic of Gilgamesh and later retold in the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis, God warns Noah of an imminent, all-consuming flood. The Creator also delivers what amounts to a construction manual for a wooden boat 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits in height. There were to be three decks to accommodate Noah’s family of eight and a pair of every animal on the planet. Exactly how many species could fit on board the Ark is not stated. “And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female,” reads the Old Testament. Today, it would amount to around 6.5 million land-based animal species, insects included.

Noah’s waterborne vessel to rescue the world’s animal species – 19th century BCE