This Week in 1923

Disinfecting railway carriages is a real gas

In the run-up to Christmas, commuters armed with sanitising gel and swine flu masks may well have welcomed a radical approach for disinfecting railway carriages reported in The Engineer’s archive. ’The method,’ said the article ’consists in generating a poisonous gas which is forced and circulated through the infected coach until every portion has been impregnated and the vermin or germs destroyed.’

Developed by Colonel Glen-Liston, a scientist at the Bombay Bacteriological Laboratory, the technique used hydrocyanic acid to disinfect an entire carriage within a 24-hour period. The Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company took on the system which the article describes as ’far in advance of anything that has so far been done in this direction’.

The components consisted of a portable gas generator, mounted on wheels, in which sulphuric acid and potassium cyanide were mixed using a 24-volt fan powered by the train’s lighting cells. This poisonous mixture was then ’propelled’ into the compartments of the carriage through piping. The vehicle was prepared by closing all windows and vents with paper and covering the entire carriage with tarpaulins.

The article continued: ’The carriage can then be left for the night and opened the next morning. With proper care there is no danger to the staff, as the gas rapidly disperses.

’For test, however, sparrows, which are very sensitive birds are used. If one is put in and survives, then it is certain that no volume of gas exists which would be detrimental to human life.’

Colonel Glen-Liston hoped the method would kill vermin such as rats, which often infested the carriages.