Our Pneumatic Past and (fingers crossed) Future

Over at Scientific American, Jennifer Ouellette wrote an article that talks about two things I love: urban structure and bits of forgotten history. Her article goes into the history and physics of vacuum and air pressure, starting with the Arab philosopher Al-Farabi in the 9th century, but I begin my story in the mid 19th century.

“In the mid-1850s, there were several rudimentary “atmospheric railways” — in Ireland, London, and Paris — and while the London Pneumatic Despatch system was intended to transport parcels, it was large enough to handle people. In fact, the Duke of Buckingham and several members of the company’s board of directors were transported through the pneumatic system on October 10, 1865, to mark the opening of a new station.”

Over in New York, traffic had become a nightmare by 1860. So some guy (there’s always a guy) came up with a solution. Alfred Ely Beach, who had previously acquired a little magazine that had only been started up ten months prior, called The Scientific American, decided to move traffic underground. He exhibited his prototype of an above-ground pneumatic train in 1867.
Being the fickle and conservative bunch that they are, New Yorkers rejected his proposed underground transportation. A combination of powerful store owners along Broadway (where Beach wanted to construct the railway), who did not want foot traffic diverted from their store fronts, and the general public not wanting its habits disrupted had his project…ehem…derailed.

Undeterred, Beach got permission from the state to build a tunnel for small pneumatic tubes under Broadway. Instead, he used the opportunity to show off his grander idea. “In February 1870, Beach unveiled his masterpiece, and it was an immediate novelty attraction for the public, especially given the luxury of the station: it boasted a grand piano, chandeliers, and a fully operational fountain stocked with goldfish.”
The opening of the station was popular with New Yorkers, but he needed more permits to construct a line up to Central Park. This made him bump up again against powerful interests in the government, and Beach was unable to do anything in the next few years.

By 1873, two things happened. There was the economic depression, also known as the Panic of 1873. And starting in 1870, other investors, working on the west side of Manhattan, namely on Ninth Avenue and Greenwich Street, constructed a steam engine, elevated transportation system. (Once abandoned, it was on these elevated, West side tracks that the High Line was built.)


Alfred Ely Beach died in 1896, his dream unaccomplished. It would take electricity to bring about the explosion of the NYC subway system. And even then, there were just as many elevated trains as there were underground. In Manhattan these lines, like the Third Avenue, Eighth Avenue, and Broadway El were scrapped as late as the 1970s, but elevated trains still operate throughout Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

As for the idea of pneumatic propelled transportation, Jennifer Ouellette fills us in. “The US government considered the possibility in the 1960s of running a vactrain (combining pneumatic tubes with maglev technology) between Philadelphia and New York City, but the project was deemed prohibitively expensive, and was scrapped. […] An engineer with Lockheed named L.K. Edwards proposed a Bay Area Gravity-Vacuum Transit system for California in 1967, designed to run in tandem with San Francisco’s BART system, then under construction. It, too, was never built. Nor was the system of underground Very High Speed Transportation conceived by Robert M. Salter of RAND in the 1970s to run along what we now call the Northeast Corridor.” However, she adds, Beach’s “vision is still influencing engineers in the 21st century, most notably researchers in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering. Apparently, traveling through networks of these vacuum tubes enables supersonic speeds without the drawback of sonic booms that plague supersonic jets, making the trip from London to New York in less than an hour.”
Surely, this is the way forward!

Ouellette, who also has a blog here, was a guest on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Hilarity ensues.


One Comment to “Our Pneumatic Past and (fingers crossed) Future”

  1. And here is a cool article on the hardships and ultimate defeat that Beach faced vis-a-vis the first subway in the City.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: