Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway


The Beach Transit Bill came to a vote in January, 1871, backed by overwhelming popular support. Tweed was ready with a rapid transit bill of his own, called the Viaduct Plan. Beach’s subway called for the expenditure of just over five million dollars, all raised privately. Tweed’s Viaduct Plan was to cost 50 to 0$ million dollars, five of it to be posted at once by the state and to be used in any way the directors of the company saw fit. (At this time New York City was still paying for its County Courthouse. Begun by Tweed in 1868 on a budget of $250,000, it was still unfinished in 1871 and had already cost over eight million dollars, including $221,799 for carpets, $2,870,000 for plastering, and $2,960,187 for furniture.)

All work on the Beach subway would be conducted underground, without disturbing the street. Tweed’s Viaduct Plan would run the length of the island on great stone arches forty feet high. Everything underneath would be condemned and razed.

The New York State Senate quickly passed the Beach Transit Hill by a vote of twenty-two to five. The bill’s margin in the Assembly was even wider, one hundred and two to eleven. But the legislature, known throughout the state as Tweed’s “Black Horse Cavalry,” also approved the Viaduct Plan. The bills arrived simultaneously on the desk of Governor John T. Hoffman.

New York waited impatiently. Would the marvelous invention of Mr. Beach be officially sanctioned? Would he be permitted to build the subway which New York needed, and now craved so desperately? Or would Boss Tweed go on looting the city while hour by hour, day by day, traffic in the streets grew thicker and thicker, snarled and tangled beyond all reason, even pedestrians having to push and shove to get through?

In a few hours the anxious city would know.

According to all the signs by which men make such judgments, Alfred Ely Beach was a genius. He was a man of vision, originality, quick perception, and fantastic energy. Among his dozens of inventions were the cable railway, the pneumatic tube, and the hydraulic tunneling bore which burrowed under Broadway for his subway and later tunneled under London’s Thames, Glasgow’s Clyde, and our own Hudson.

He seems never to have known a childhood, in the ordinary sense. Before he was twenty-one he had invented the world’s first practical typewriter. Made of wood, it was as unattractive as a bushel basket, and about the same size, but it worked, winning the gold medal at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1856. Young as he was, Beach knew full well what he had done. “Someday,” he predicted, “boys will be taught to write their names only. All the rest will be played on this literary piano.”

He was a compassionate man, deeply moved by suffering. To him, a man locked up in darkness by blindness seemed to suffer most of all. So Beach worked almost ten years trying to adapt his typewriter to imprint a raised letter which the blind could read with their fingers. At last he had it: male and female dies arranged to strike simultaneously on opposite sides of the paper, embossing a character. Until then, Braille could be written only by hand.

Like many men of such talent he was patient with problems but bored by success. Once an invention was finished, he had no time for it and would go on to something else. Me earned a little money from some of his inventions, but nothing at all from most of them. Remington and others made fortunes in his wake. Beach himself would have remained poor if invention had been his only source of income.

For most of his life he managed three careers simultaneously: publisher, inventor, and patent lawyer. He was only nineteen when lie took over a rundown and financially shaky journal called the Scientific American . In a few years he had built it into the most successful, powerful, and influential weekly of its kind. It was to become a beacon of light for an age which otherwise might not have been ready for astounding scientific advances.

At twenty-two Beach became publisher of the New York Sun , first and most lucrative of the city’s penny dailies. By the time he was twenty-six the Sun had ceased to stimulate him, so he turned it over to his brother. In all he founded twenty or more publications, some of them still on newsstands today.

He was indefatigable. Between 1850 and 1860 he endured the bumpy day and a half ride to Washington every two weeks, taking the ferry across the Hudson and boarding the train on the Jersey side. On behalf of struggling inventors, he argued thousands of patent cases, winning virtually all of them.

Inventors, good or bad, loved him. He was always courteous, always patient, always had time to listen, even to the most hare-brained scheme, and afterward to offer advice and occasional financial aid. He gave encouragement and a friendly car to Elias Howe, Samuel F. B. Morse, R. J. Gatling (inventor of the machine gun) and to Captain John Ericsson, soon to launch the Monitor . Tom Edison was his frequent visitor, and it was to Alfred Beach’s desk that he first brought his new phonograph.

“What is it?” asked Beach.

“It’s my talking box,” said Edison.

For a moment, while Edison grinned at him with pride, Beach gazed at the handle which jutted from the box.

“Well,” said Death, “cranks are made for cranking.” and he began to turn the handle.