A year on from 9/11, I was dining at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. My companions were architects, engineers and designers. What they had in common was the fact that their work took them frequently from New York to Chicago. None was enamoured with the idea of flying. I suggested they band together and get a “21st Century Limited” – a glamorous sleeping car express complete with cocktail bar, gourmet restaurant, every digital convenience and a late night party guaranteed on every trip - onto the rails between Grand Central and Chicago’s LaSalle Street stations. It would, of course, be steam hauled.
We toasted the idea, although when it came to steam power, I was accused, good-humouredly, of being a man of the past. Sure, trains had a future, but steam? Yes. Announced last year, the Minneapolis-based Coalition for Sustainable Rail [CSR] Project 130 is an attempt by international railway locomotive engineers and two environmental research departments at the University of Minnesota to shape a 130mph “carbon neutral” steam locomotive. This re-design of the steam engine will run on sustainably produced US timber, its exhaust will be very nearly as clean as that of a domestic kettle and it aims to be 50% cheaper to run than diesel-electrics. And, far from being stuck in the past, CSR team members are young, well informed and computer savvy. In fact, its President, Davidson Ward – an architecture graduate from the University of Minnesota – is just 25. He has been passionate about steam, he tells me, since he was two.
Will it happen? Maybe. One of the great strengths of the design world is its ability to look back at the past, at precedent, and to think of how we can move forward while learning from the past. In fact, designers and manufacturers around the world continue to look at existing designs and old technologies, wondering if they, too, might create if not a radically improved steam locomotive, then a better vacuum cleaner, mobile phone, electric plug or car.
‘Bow to tradition’
Take Sir Kenneth Grange, for instance. The British designer has been designing objects as diverse as food mixers, irons, Instamatic cameras and the distinctive nose cone of the InterCity 125 High Speed Train for more than 50 years. In the mid-90s, he was asked to design a new London taxi. Produced from 1997 to 2002, the resulting TX1 was not a revolutionary design, but a self-conscious reworking of a format and style that had served London well for the best part of 40 years. Here was a case of not trying too hard to reinvent the wheel because “cabbies” and “fares” alike expect a London taxi to be a very particular type of vehicle: tall, spacious, preferably glossy black, discreet and able to turn on a sixpence [or 2.5 pence in post-1971 currency]. Carbodies, the company behind traditional black cabs, had ideas in mind for a great leap forward in taxi design, yet Grange held back, and wisely so. “The job of the designer,” he told me, “is not always to make something that looks dramatically new. Sometimes, you bow to tradition.”
Other designers have made brave leaps into the future hoping to change the way we see and use familiar gadgets and appliances. But, such designers are usually inventors, thinking anew about the way familiar objects work as well as look. Sir James Dyson has won fame for his radical cyclonic vacuum cleaners, while a host of largely anonymous inventors and designers has changed the very way we communicate with one another through computers and the internet, mobile phones and a plethora of digital gizmos.