Pneumatic clocks? Who doesn’t think of Jules Verne and his extraordinary voyages with steam-powered submarines or manned capsules whizzing through a pipe system? Some characters of Verne’s novels really did exist in the second half of the nineteenth century: courageous adventurers or inventors who, like the Austrian Carl Albert Mayrhofer, were completely dedicated to a strange idea. During the 1870s and 1880s, Mayrhofer had devoted himself to pneumatic clocks because those in charge were sceptical that the construction of a central clock system for Vienna would succeed by using the widely unproven technology of electricity. But this choice caused the inventor more problems than the use of electricity could have done.
Mayrhofer desperately campaigned for acceptance of his pneumatic clock system, which was accompanied by bankruptcies and breakdowns. Like the eccentric inventor Gyro Gearloose in Disney comics, he was bubbling over with ideas, but he had no idea about business. A shady bankrupt by the name of Viktor Popp snatched the patents from Mayrhofer and sold them at an enormous profit to a Parisian public limited company.
With his pneumatic clocks, Mayrhofer had reached a dead end. Today, the Vienna clock system and his inventor are largely forgotten. Only a handful of relics survive. Nevertheless, it is worth looking at that tragic story, some of the anecdotes of which can be quite amusing. For the history of this technological innovation provides an insight into the process of building the modern world that on the one hand seems completely foreign and exotic to us, but in some details very familiar.