Alfred Ely Beach And His Wonderful Pneumatic Underground Railway


“Good morning, sir,” said the machine. “How are your How do you like the talking box?”

When not at his desk, Beach would be in his workshop. He had no time for vacations, and never took one. His life was regulated to the smallest detail. He knew a week in advance what clothes he would wear, what foods he would eat, what moment he would arrive at the office. That way there would always be time for everything, he would never be rushed, never thrown oft stride. He allowed time for inventors who imposed upon him. for evenings with his family (he had no taste for society), and for exercise, which he believed related directly to good health. He was very rarely sick.

He read widely and thoroughly and could speak with imagination and originality on many subjects. His quick. incisive mind was never satisfied with the superficial. The salient points he grasped at once. From there he probed deeper, ever deeper. He had no interest in gossip or polite conversation, only in ideas.

He had straw-colored hair and appeared frail. But he got by on a few hours’ sleep at night. He was a kind man, a gentle man, but a restless one. He was always working on half a dozen things at once. Music was his only relaxation. He loved opera in particular and attended it often.

It was in 1849, when Allied Reach was only twenty-three years old, that he first conceived the idea of a subway. Beach’s office overlooked City Hall, one of the busiest sections of the city. Day after day the noise of frightened horses and cracking whips floated up to him. So did the voices of the drivers, cursing pedestrians and cursing each other. There was the occasional crack of clubs against skulls as police used primitive methods of untangling jams. Beach himself lived far uptown at 9 West 20th Street, it took him almost an hour to get home each night.

There were only two possibilities for relieving street congestion, an elevated road or a subway. Though he was later to build an experimental El, Beach was disinclined to favor them, reasoning that they would be noisy, unsightly, and most of all dangerous. The most dependable motive power in 1849 was a team of strong horses. But horses were skittish creatures which shied and bolted at the least fright. On a trestle ten or more feet above the street there would be no controlling them at all. Dozens of unlucky passengers would plunge to their deaths each year.

But a subway—the idea sent a thrill through him. He could not get enough of imagining such a grandiose scheme. “The plan is to tunnel Broadway its entire length,” he wrote in the Scientific American , in what was possibly the world’s first public projection of the subway concept, “with openings at every corner. There would be two tracks, with a footpath running between them, the whole to be brilliantly lighted with gas. The cars, to be drawn by horses, would stop ten seconds at every corner.”

A decade and a half passed, during which Beach pushed the subway idea as best lie could in Scientific American and New York Sun editorials. Then in 1866 he began his experiments with pneumatic power. An even grander plan began to take shape in his mind.

Today Beach’s faith in pneumatic power seems incredibly naive. But in 1866 pneumatic power appeared to be the only hope for a subway—and New York, it seemed to Beach, had to have one. The electric and gasoline engines having not yet been invented, the only alternative was to bury a great steam locomotive and have it pull the subway.

Impossible, through Beach. People would never ride in a tunnel with those soot-belching monsters. White shirts would be turned black by the smoke. Cinders would fly in the windows and set fire to ladies’ garments. Résilies, too many boilers burst far too frequently. An explosion would mean a cave-in. Those who weren’t scalded to death by escaping steam would be buried alive. One such disaster would mean the end of the subway for all time.

It had to be pneumatic power. Reach knew of course that the wind machines of his day were inadequate. But he was a dreamer, and he imagined a time far in the future—more compact, more powerful fans, then turbines as mighty as jet engines. One day subways would whoosh under the streets at speeds then considered fantastic!

When the American Institute Fair was held in the Fourteenth Street Armory in 1867, Beach installed a plywood tube six feet in diameter which ran the length of the Armory, and into it inserted a small car with scats for ten passengers. A helix fan, ten feet in diameter, funneled a blast of air into the smaller tube, blowing the car with great élan from Fourteenth to Fifteenth Streets, then reversed to draw it back again. Hundreds of passengers rode in this car during succeeding weeks, and the exhibit often won spontaneous applause.