Circa 1914: Emile Bachelet (left) shows a model fo the magnetic levitation train he invented.
French-born inventor Emile Bachelet of 604 South 8th Avenue in Mount Vernon, among other addresses, was proud of his White Steamer motorcar—the same model as President Taft’s. When he took his goggle-wearing family for Sunday joy rides, neighbors waved in awe.
But Bachelet hungered for something faster than four wheels. Long before electric locomotives arrived to replace steam-driven engines, and before high-speed bullet trains were even an inkling of an idea, the need for speed quietly took hold, thanks to the young inventor in Westchester.
In March 1912, Bachelet was granted a patent on the magnetic levitating train system. The “maglev” traded slow, steam-driven engines for magnetic attraction and repulsion. Carefully arranged magnets would pull and push against each other to thrust the train cars—or at least Bachelet’s model—at more than 300 miles per hour. No drag from friction. No screeching axles. No weather delays. Miles Bracewell, a well-known bass singer at the time, saw such promise that he invested $30,000 in the idea (more than $700,000 in today’s dollars). The Bachelet-Bracewell Lab soon began cranking on Fulton Avenue and 3rd Street in Mount Vernon, housing the first working maglev model. The young inventor, it seemed, was destined to share a seat with Ford, Tesla, and the Wright brothers. Before Bachelet had secured the patent, he was so nervous someone might steal his magnum opus that he often slept at the lab.
Born in the small French village of Nanterre in 1863 and orphaned as a young boy, Bachelet moved around, at times living on the street with his younger brother, until the age of 18, when he seized an opportunity to become an electrician at the Boston Institute (later known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
While working as chief electrician for the City of Tacoma and later the State of Washington, Bachelet realized that electromagnets soothed his arthritis. He filed seven separate patents for therapeutic devices that led to the opening of the Bachelet Medical Apparatus Company in Manhattan’s new Flatiron Building, with a gleaming showroom on West 23rd Street, in or around 1905.
But financial success didn’t quench Bachelet’s creative thirst. He turned to new consumer applications for electromagnetism. Magnetic repulsion caught his eye, and the inventor began building a small maglev on the top floor of his Mount Vernon home. With financial funding falling short, Bachelet launched a vaudeville show featuring electromagnetic mysteries to raise money. The fanfare flopped.
Taking notice was financier John Jacob Astor (America’s first multimillionaire and founder of the “family trust”), who promised to aid Bachelet after he returned from his travels. Astor’s ill-fated trip westward was aboard the Titanic. Bachelet would have to cross the Atlantic on his own. In 1913, a consortium of British investors backed “The Flying Train,” hoping to churn out a high-speed mail-delivery system.
The maglev propelled Bachelet to British celebrity. Before long, industry titans saw the maglev as more than a mere postal service, envisioning heavy cargo and passenger travel as the next frontiers. Winston Churchill was especially captivated; Sir John Fleming, Sir Hiram Maxim, and other notables flocked to Bachelet’s laboratory demonstrations. The “French scientist” moved to a nearby castle, shopped on Savile Row, commissioned a sculpted bust by Frederick Callcott, and added to his collection an artist’s bronze, silver, and ebony rendition of the maglev railway.
But on August 14, 1914, World War I broke out and Bachelet’s knowledge of electromagnetism swept him into building guns and catapults. After the war, Churchill and other maglev supporters now deemed the maglev’s daunting energy demands infeasible, bringing Bachelet’s ambitious plans to a screeching halt. Bachelet headed to the Hudson in 1920 and formulated “a planetary scheme” to use free energy instead of electricity. His company shortly went bankrupt.
In 1946, Bachelet passed away at his small Poughkeepsie, New York, home, while still chugging along on the planetary scheme. He was a victim of his time. Even electric locomotives hummed far on the horizon. Bachelet’s work, though, laid down the track for modern maglevs like China’s Transrapid and Tokyo’s Linimo. Although magnetic levitating trains are quiet and safe, high costs have prevented widespread adoption. In March 1912, the Mount Vernon Daily Argus headlined that soon you “Could Send Mail From Here to Boston in One Hour…” Boston, meanwhile, is still waiting.