Lartigue, Charles François Marie Thérèse (1834–1907), civil engineer and business entrepreneur, was born on 14 June 1834 in Toulouse, France, of possible Spanish ancestry; his parents’ names are unknown. As a young man Lartigue shared the infectious optimism of contemporary British and American inventors, but remained more creative than accomplished. He adopted sound mechanical principles taken from science and nature but was frustrated by the political and economic conservatism of his time. As a middle-aged engineer in colonial Algeria c.1881, he is said to have developed a theory of how equally-distributed panniers of raw material, then carried by camel train, might be more efficiently transported across an uneven desert landscape. He replaced the camels with a single iron rail bearing even loads drawn along a continuous trestle whose apex ran at about waist level. Lartigue's prototype was portable and flexible, the very essence of light narrow gauge, on which mules drew loads up to 56 miles (90 km) without difficulty. He patented the system in 1882, effectively the first monorail.
At mines in the Pyrenees he adapted this system to carry copper ore. He sought to introduce light mechanical traction with coupled carriages whose design imitated the pannier principle for passenger or goods transit. His vehicles required wheels positioned to run along the central monorail, and rollers engaging an outer rail near the base of the trestle. In London he established (1883) the Lartigue Railway Construction Co. and subsequently built demonstration models, principally in London and Paris. There, he employed steam and electrical engines as alternative modes of traction. His London steam locomotive (designed by Anatole Mallet) had two boilers and funnels of corresponding weight suspended on either side of the track. The Paris train had an electric engine, similarly divided in two. Lartigue took as managing director the German-born railway engineer Fritz Bernhard Behr (1842–1927), a British citizen since 1876. He built the Lartigue railways and promoted the patent within the UK, including Ireland.
After signal lack of success elsewhere in the islands, Behr attracted Lartigue to the remote and underdeveloped landscape of north Kerry between Listowel and Ballybunion, determined to prove how successful the system could be in extremis. Lartigue accepted the challenge, and in 1886 Behr formed the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway Co. In practice, however, it would forever be known eponymously as ‘the Lartigue railway’. It was approved by specific legislation, to the great umbrage of unsuccessful narrow-gauge competitors in the region, and built in time for an official opening on 29 February 1888. Lartigue's original designer, Mallet, was named on the plates of its three curious double-fronted locomotives, the passenger and goods cars appearing outwardly conventional but limited within by the necessity for efficient distribution of weight. An element of comedy, much to the pioneers’ frustration but to their critics’ delight, was afforded by delays involved in achieving load efficiency, not least with the arbitrary shifting of excited livestock.
Comedy, however, paid no bills, and the survival of Lartigue's monorail system in Co Kerry, till the line's descent into receivership in 1897, conferred a unique legacy of heroic failure. Yet, in spite of its slowness (average speed c.15 mph (24 kph)) and relative discomfort (with constant noise from elevated centrally-placed wheels and wooden seats for all but the first-class passengers), his invention remained operational in Ireland as a service, a tourism promoter, and a working model. Behr continued to promote the Lartigue system in Belgium and in England till it faded out in the early 1900s. In France, Lartigue personally endured the stress of outrage and scandal when his attempt, through political influence, to establish a monorail system between Panissières and Feurs in the late 1880s rebounded on him in his own land. He died there on 25 February 1907. In practice, the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway remained (in receivership) reputedly the only operational monorail system in the world, although Louis Brennan (qv) of Castlebar, Co. Mayo, inventor of the guided missile, nearly established one in London in 1910.
The moribund line was taken over by the state in 1916 and ran its final service on 10 October 1924, a delayed result of damage caused in the civil war (1922–3) and of diminishing returns on investment. Although scrapped almost immediately, Lartigue's system, legendary and bizarre even in its own time, had been extensively photographed, some of the best images surviving in the Lawrence collection at the NLI. A widely supported millennium project at the beginning of the twenty-first century restored part of the Lartigue railway to its former glory, and the towns of Listowel and Panissières were twinned in common memory of its disappointed inventor.