23 March 2006

An ideal solution to the perennial problem of 'leaves on the tracks'

The next saucer to Shoeburyness leaves from platform 5 ...
by Alok Jha

"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.

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."

Unfortunately for Mr Frederick, the flying saucer idea never took off, and the patent has now lapsed.

- Guardian, 13 March 2006

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