Talk:Dionysius Lardner

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Removed from article[edit]

I'ver removed this from the article as Wikipedia is not a crystal ball:

Andrew Odlyzko is including a chapter on Lardner in his forthcoming book "The Internet and Victorian

Railroads: How to Blame Microsoft for the Dot-com Bubble and

How to Prepare for the Next Techno-mania."

When Odlyzko's book is published, it can go in Further Reading or, better, actually be used to expand the article and thus be a Reference. However it may be more appropriate to mention Lardner in Odlyzko's article than vice versa (unless this article is be a list of every writer who has mentioned Lardner in the last 200 years). JackyR | Talk 15:27, 8 November 2006 (UTC)

What's in a name?[edit]

No mention of Diogenes Laertius? (talk) 00:36, 3 September 2010 (UTC)

famous quotation[edit]

I added what is probably his most famous quotation. I've been looking for context or expansion, but can't find any at the moment. I recall reading somewhere years go that it was based on a mis-application of Bernouli's principle but can't find that source now. Anyway, it would be nice to flesh this out and provide context. Mr. Swordfish (talk) 15:47, 16 May 2014 (UTC)

Did he actually say that?[edit]

In , the current version reads:

Lardner also criticised Brunel's design of the [[Box Tunnel]] on the Great Western Railway. The tunnel had a 1-in-100 gradient from the east end to the west end. Lardner asserted that if a train's brakes were to fail in the tunnel, it would accelerate to over {{convert|120|mph|km/h|abbr=on}}, at which speed the passengers would die of [[asphyxia]]. Brunel pointed out that Lardner’s calculations totally disregarded air-resistance and friction, a basic error.<ref name=christopher/> also seems to refer to this in giving as a quotation of Lardner

"Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."

I found this interesting as an example of failed forecasting, but then I wondered: how exactly could Lardner come to such an idea as speed resulting in asphyxiation? And how could Brunel use air-resistance and friction to debunk Lardner's claims? If Lardner had simply warned of asphyxiation in a tunnel if a train moved slowly or got stuck that would make perfect sense: they are enormous combustion engines spewing smoke and carbon monoxide and all sorts of pollutants, on top of the normal gas hazards involved in tunnels (a google of 'train tunnel suffocate' turns up a number of fears & worries, and a particularly grisly incident where 520 Italians died in a tunnel). But by going too fast?

The reference is to Brunel's Kingdom (Christopher 2006) with no page number, which I do not own and cannot immediately find an ebook of, but it is available as a snippet view on Google Books. A search for 'asphyxia', 'asphyxiate', & 'suffocate' turned up nothing; the 2 hits for 'die' don't seem relevant; and 'Lardner' is mentioned only 5 times: pg55, "...declined to undertake this work on the grounds of his close friendship with Brunel and Nicholas Wood agreed in his place. He was later joined by John Hawkshaw of the Manchester & Leeds Railway and by IKB's greatest detractor, the Revd Dr Dionysius Lardner no less. Hawkshaw's report appeared first and although critical it lacked any..."; pg118, snippet reading "...boilers. These would be fed with coal and once again IKB's old advisory Dr Lardner had something to say on the matter. At a meeting..."; pg120, snippet reading " arrive at full steam and paddles biting into the water. Lardner had been completely wrong with his calculations that it would take 1,348 tons of coal to make the crossing. The Great Western had only consumed 456 tons and she still had coal to spare. ..."; the remaining 2 are not given. But none of these sound like asphyxiation, so I move on.

Googling, I found The Railway Magazine, Volume 7 which says:

In the Commons the Box Tunnel was virulently attacked; it was, in short, declared so impracticable that the promoters could only be "suffering from hallucination in proposing such a piece of folly". Medical practitioners testified that the vitiated atmosphere would produce asphyxia and otherwise choke the passengers. Dr. Lardner was in evidence to prove by means of the differential calculus that "the resistance of the atmosphere would prove fatal to the speed proposed, and that the machinery to be employed on the 'inclined planes' would not work." It was also stated that "the passage of the train would detach fragments of rock from the roof of the tunnel", and "dire would be the result." These random statements were emphatically disproved, especially where Mr. Brunel was under cross-examination; and we are told that the counsel for the opposition becoming alarmed, first bullied the promoters, then attacked their witnesses, and finally wound up his address with the covert sneer that "the Great Western, though it may reach as far as Bath, from Bristol, after having, like a mole, explored its way through tunnels long and deep, the passengers will have become so heartily sick with foul air, smoke and sulphur, that any subsequent mention of the railway would have a more disastrous effect than a dose of ipecacuanha administered by a generously disposed village apothecary!"

Engineering, Volume 4 also seems to discuss this testimony:

When, thirty years ago, the first bill of the Great Western Railway Company was before Parliament, it was opposed, among other things, upon the ground that the atmosphere of the Box tunnel, 1 3/4 miles long, would be dangerous to the health of passengers. Dr. Lardner was one of the principal witnesses against the bill, and, as usual, he was very positive in giving his evidence. The subject was investigated, however, with considerable care, and, as our readers know, the bill passed, and we believe no one has ever suffered in health from a ride through the Box tunnel. That work, however, is of very large sectional area of opening...[of another narrower tunnel] When but one tunnel was open, the men working the pilot and and goods engines suffered considerably, and Mr. Peacock, of the present firm of Messrs. Beyer, Peacock, and Co., who had charge of the locomotive stock of the line, several years ago, has told us how rapidly his men were knocked up in the service. [the rest of the page continues to discuss the danger of pollution in tunnels and issues relating to sulfur & carbon monoxide]

This version makes much more sense than the article's: naturally you would use math to show that a grade would accelerate a train to dangerous speeds and it would fall apart, killing its passengers, and naturally Brunel might then point out that air resistance increases considerably with speed; and as an entirely separate issue, some unnamed doctors might point to well-known dangers of tunnels & mines.

But what about that quotation? Lardner apparently personally cited asphyxia as the danger, not acceleration & breakup. The reference given is Outrageous Inventions, which GB describes as "Juvenile Nonfiction - 56 pages". Not the best sign. GB fortunately will show us the 1 hit for 'Lardner': "Did you know? Before people began to travel by train, some scientists thought our bodies would not survive going at high speeds. In about 1835, Professor Dionysius Lardner said, 'Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die." Naturally, no source is given, and it's not quite the same as our version. The year given is right for the 1835 Great Western Railway Act, though.

Since the end of the sentence is in doubt, the most reliable phrase to search for would seem to be "Rail travel at high speed" in conjunction with "Lardner".

This turns up 26 results in Google Scholar; most of these results are bald quotations, but one dates the quote to 1823! Another mentions Lardner's Popular Lectures on the Steam Engine, in Which Its Construction and Operation Are Familiarly Explained (but mostly in a context about his failed trans-Atlantic prediction); die/asphyxia/asphyxiate/high-speed/suffocate turn up nothing.

A general search of Google Books, besides turning up endless repetitions of the quote and even more suggested dates (now he apparently said it in 1830 - or was it 1840, as some blogs claim?), reveals that apparently a lot of people think Lardner was a scientist (if he was, his discoveries seem to have been entirely omitted from the WP article). A search restricted to the 1800s shows a striking absence of matching hits, but some possible candidates discussing Lardner without being part of the echo chamber/Chinese whispers polluting more contemporary sources. Looking at the hits on the first page: a magazine with one mention of Lardner, mocking his failed steamship prediction; a biography with ~3 hits, one of which mentions "The objections urged by the review against the high speed attainable on railways, - then a mere matter of speculation, - were also entertained by nearly all the practical and scientific men [For instance, Dr. Lardner affirmed that 'carriages could not go at any thing like the contemplated speed; if driven to it, the wheels would merely spin on their axles, and the carriages would stand stock-still.'] of the kingdom, and by the public generally.", a mention of an article Lardner wrote complaining an engineer had obtained a monopoly on some products, another possible misfire by Lardner: "Among others, Dr. Lardner, who had originally been somewhat skeptical about the powers of the locomotive, now promulgated the idea that a railway constructed with rising and falling gradients would be practically as easy to work as a line perfectly level...For a time, this theory found favour, and the 'undulating system' was extensively adopted; but Mr. Stephenson never ceased to inveigh against it; and experience has amply proved that his judgment was correct."; a magazine with 2 hits, one quoting a Lardner work on the safety of railways compared to horses, and quoting it again about how fast trains do damage to railways far out of proportion to their economic value/revenue; a book with 2 hits which seems to be a copy of the magazine; a hit in a magazine, debating the aerodynamics of the front of trains: "...The Engineer replies in the following manner: 'Our contemporary takes special exception to the statement that what may be called "head resistance" was shown by Lardner's experiments to be practically unaffected by form. It is very easy to fall into error on this point, and it will be well to make the truth clear before going further. What Lardner said was not that head resistance did not exist, but that its amount was not appreciably affected by form. It is only necessary to stand on the front buffer beam of a locomotive running at speed to ascertain the fact that the air exerts a considerable resistance or push against the advance of the train; but this may be freely conceded, while it is held that putting a prow like that of a ship on the engine would have no effect."; the next magazine's sole hit is very similar, a discussion of Lardner's aerodynamic work (hm, maybe I've misjudged him and he really was a scientist after all), which writes "for while the railway system was yet in its early days (1838), Dr. Lardner ascertained, by a long and careful series of experiments - of which a full report was made to the British Association - that the resistance offered by the atmosphere to passenger trains at high velocities far exceeds that from all other sources, being at 30 miles equal to 15 lbs. per ton of the gross weight of the train, and at 60 miles an hour equal to 60 lbs. per ton, while the resistance in both cases from other sources amounts only to 10 lbs. per ton."; the next two magazines/hits repeats this material; Railroad digest, Volume 2 mentions the aerodynamic research too, but concludes "His method of calculation, however, does not give satisfactory results."; lastly Engineering News-record, Volume 20 mentions Lardner, first discussing his aerodynamic research at length, then later criticizing him.

Finally, I tried restricting the dates to 1820-1840, but this didn't do any better (although a number of the periodical hits are inaccessible). There are no direct hits for the quotation "Rail travel at high speed is" in the 1800s, nor 1900-1950, nor 1950-1975. Ground zero for this quotation seems to start in the 1980s and be pg213 of The book of heroic failures: The Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain (1980) or pg41 of volume 2 of the fledgling popular magazine Omni (also 1980, also not known for rigour & critical thinking); the former is available as an ebook scan (it has a lot of comics in it) and all the material (no sources are given) is:

'Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia' - Dr Dionysys [sic] Lardner (1793-1859), professor of natural philosophy and astronomy at University College, London. He also asserted that no large steamship would ever be able to cross the Atlantic, since it would require more coal than it could carry. Two years later the Great Western crossed the Atlantic.

I suspect either this was copied from Omni or vice-versa, since that Omni issue repeats the misspelling of his name (it says the usual, '"Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia." —Dr. Dionysys Lardner (1793-1859)'). The tell-tale misspelling appears on a fair number of webpages if you force Google to search for the misspelling, and also in 7 other books, some from the 1980s as well. Indeed, by 1988 the quote has shown up in Jesse Helms's Congressional testimony, arguing for abolishing the US Office of Technology Assessment (they didn't succeed, but it'd be eventually killed by Gingrich in 1995):

What this headline really means is that there has been one more catastrophic failure from the Office of Technology Assessment. OTA has been obsessed with proving that President Reagan’s strategic defense initiative is both wrongheaded and dangerous almost since the very moment Mr. Reagan announced it in 1983. OTA has long ago lost its pretense that it is an objective scientific analysis group. By and large its reports are useless or irrelevant, but it has demonstrated over and over again that its work on SDI is both pernicious and distorted. Mr. President, the Office of Technology Assessment is remindful of declaration by similar self-proclaimed experts of the past. History has all but forgotten these experts who were forever saying that something couldn’t be done because somebody with more vision, and perhaps less prejudice, always came along and did it. For example, there was the English clergyman. Dr. Dionysius Lardner, who frequently pontificated beyond his ability to reason. Dr. Lardner, in the middle of the 19th century, declared: “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”

(Note the irony.)

Searching Google in general, even with a query like '"Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers" lardner -"(1793-1859)" -quotation -prediction -predictions -"professor of"' is an exercise in futility.

Finally, I thought I'd try JSTOR on the off-chance there's an article or book Google Scholar missed. The usual '"Rail travel at high speed"' search turns up only an article "The Twilight of Sovereignty" which was already in Scholar but unavailable, so I downloaded it; it repeats the usual story and cites it to "Cerf & Navasky, The Experts Speak...1984". Some excerpts from it quote the failed Lardner prediction about the steamship. Google Books indicates 4 hits but only shows 3; however, we can infer that the 'rail travel' quote was inside it, because the shown steamship quote has endnote 24 while the listed endnote is for #22. That citation points at "Atyeo and Green, Don't Quote Me, p. 152", which is a compilation of humorous quotes published in... 1981.

So, where does this leave me? I haven't conclusively proven that Lardner never said that quote and that his criticisms of Brunel did not involve asphyxiation. But I have searched high and low, through some enormous datasets covering much contemporary writings which discuss Lardner's railway ideas in detail, some written by hostile contemporary sources who mocked Lardner for his steamship prediction or pessimism about wheels and would be expected to mock him for any asphyxiation claim, and I have found nothing. All I have found is a quote with no context or sourcing, which is never given any context or primary sourcing in any source that I found, a quote which appears out of nowhere in a virgin birth in a dubious English humor book a century and a half after the quote was supposedly uttered, which possibly was based on a confusion of Lardner's actual testimony & medical concern about tunnels, and which then caught on in a memetic wildfire as a new entry into the subgenre of 'predictions against technological progress which were wrong'.

It is certainly possible that somewhere in an unscanned Lardner book or a British periodical, he said that. Or that he said it in his testimony before Parliament when he was criticizing Brunel's tunnel, which I didn't find transcribed anywhere. But at this point, it seems unlikely.

So unless someone can find a hard, reliable, primary source - or at least a secondary source which describes a primary source - I suggest that the Brunel section be edited to remove any mention of asphyxiation, the quote deleted entirely, and added to Wikiquotes in an 'Apocryphal' section. --Gwern (contribs) 00:17 30 June 2014 (GMT)

I've implemented my suggestions: --Gwern (contribs) 21:34 7 July 2014 (GMT)

Comment on Did he actually say that[edit]

I researched this topic for my biography of Lardner, 'Villain of Steam', although I looked at different sources and am interested to see the helpful work done above. Lardner was called to the Second Great Western Railway Enquiry because he had written some of the very few articles and books to inform hungry readers about the issues involved (railways, speed, tunnels and the alternative methods- stationary engines on pneumatic railways). In his 1834 'Edinburgh Review' article, which was written at the time between the two enquiries. This was at about the time when the Box tunnel was being secretly conceived, and was probably did not address the Box tunnel specifically. Lardner had written:

"The principle objection to the adoption of tunnels on railways, worked by steam power, has been the want of sufficient ventilation.  The furnace of the engine renders the air unfit for breathing, and the impurity produced by the passage of one engine might continue until the arrival of the next.  It is proposed, in longer tunnels, to overcome the difficulty by building shafts or chimneys at short intervals, carried from the roof of the tunnel to the surface of the ground above [...] we are not aware of whether the sufficiency of such an expedient for the purposes of ventilation has yet been proved by experiment." Cite error: A <ref> tag is missing the closing </ref> (see the help page).


Lardner wrote very enthusiastically about the early railways but thought it professional to keep a balanced tone and was justifiably concerned about health and safety aspects at a time when embers fell on passengers heads and brakes consisted of a plank of wood rubbed against the wheel. His objection to the Box tunnel was not that it was a particularly long tunnel which would affect the air quality, but that but that the track descended steeply in the tunnel and ended in a curve. This is why the issues of asphyxiation and the issue of speed have become conflated in later historical accounts. His evidence to the enquiry was at first negative regarding the tunnel: A Lord asked:

‘Do you know of any Parallel to this, uniting the length of this tunnel with that incline?’

‘No, I am not aware of any.’

‘Is it justifiable, except in a very extreme Case, to unite those two disadvantages, Such a Length of Tunnel with that Inclination?’

‘I think nothing but an overruling Necessity could justify it’. ”[1]

After some days Lardner became reluctant to give further evidence on tunnels, stating that nobody had ever seen such a tunnel, but eventually conceded that he did not think that the air quality in the Box Tunnel would prove lethal.

See further details on Lardner and the Great Western Railway enquiry in 'Villain of Steam'.[2]

Anna L Martin (talk) 11:29, 7 July 2016 (UTC) ---


  1. ^ Minutes of evidence taken before the Lords [sic.] committees to whom the bill intituled An act for joining the railway from London to Bristol to join the London and Birmingham railway near London, to be called the “Great Western Railway” with branches therefrom to the towns of Bradford and Trowbridge in the County of Wilts” June 1835. p.902
  2. ^ A.L. Martin, Villain of Steam, Tyndall Scientific, 20015 pp.179-213

Related to Nathaniel Lardner?[edit]

It seems likely (names + interests) that Dionysius and Nathaniel Lardner are related (as grandfather/-son?) Anyone know? Either way, it would be good to mention the answer in the articles. SquisherDa (talk) 12:38, 28 December 2018 (UTC)