When I think of the term “pneumatic transit”, I have visions of science-fiction artwork from the 1950s and 60s, showing space-age technology from “the year 2000!”
Believe it or not, such a contraption was a reality in the 1870s. On February 26, 1870, Alfred Beach unveiled his Pneumatic Transit System to the people of New York City.
In the early half of the 1800s, New York City was over-ran by thousands of horse-drawn carriages and street trolleys… but the main form of transportation for most people was their own two feet.
In 1849, Alfred Beach (an inventor and editor of his own publication, Scientific American), wrote an article in which he suggested that a series of underground tunnels could be built for horse-drawn trolleys (can you imagine the smell?!). However, he quickly altered his enthusiasm for this idea, when he learned about the success they were having with pneumatics in England. (For those that might only be vaguely familiar with the word, “pneumatic” means using air pressure to create movement.)
Alfred Beach began imagining a transit system, utilizing this new pneumatic concept. Other scientists had already theorized that such a device could transport passengers and cargo at a speed of 50 mph. This was an unheard of speed at the time. Steam-powered locomotives had only been around for about 20 years at that point, and even those only moved about 15-20 mph.
To generate interest and enthusiasm for his idea, Beach built a 100 foot long tube at the American Institute Fair of 1867. Attendees were able to travel back and forth, with much amusement, and experience pneumatic transit for themselves.
His efforts to build a larger system under the city were originally blocked by some of New York’s wealthiest businessmen, who had no interest in having large tunnels constructed directly under their businesses (they feared it might cause the ground to cave in). However, Beach eventually managed to side-step this issue, by securing the authorization to build two small postal tubes (and then later amended his request, claiming that he needed to build one big tunnel to house the two smaller tubes).
During construction, access to the tube was severely limited. Only the workers were allowed inside. Even the mayor’s request to see their work was denied. Construction took place twenty feet below the surface, using a special machine designed by Beach himself, to dig the tunnel out inches at a time (using horse carts to haul the dirt out at the end of each day).
Finally, on February 26, 1870, Beach allowed access to the public for the first time. Guests entered the facility through the basement of a clothing store, and were greeted by chandeliers, an elaborate fountain, two bronze statues of the Roman god Mercury, with everything illuminated by gas lanterns.
For about 25 cents, customers were allowed to ride the length of the tunnel and back again. In its first two weeks of operation, the Beach Pneumatic Transit system had more than 11,000 passengers. Beach quickly began securing the rights to try and expand his new ‘subway’ system. The company began drawing up plans and surveying the land. Their hopes were derailed though, in 1873. An economic collapse, known in history as The Panic of 1873, caused investors to avoid such a risky endeavor such as the pneumatic transit system. By 1878, Beach Pneumatic Transit was broke. Even though Alfred Beach had invested $200,000 of his own money, he was forced to give up the dream and move on to other ventures. The entrance to the Pneumatic tunnel was bricked over, and forgotten.
In the late 1890s, the clothing store that had served as the entrance burned down. When it was reconstructed, the brick wall was replaced with a cement one, leaving a ventilation shaft as the only entrance to the abandoned subway.
In February of 1912, the Public Service Commission opened the ventilation shaft and became the first people in over 30 years to see Beach’s pneumatic railway.
It was remarkably well-preserved. Aside from some rusting, and the expected deterioration of age and disuse, there were still signs of the grandeur that once was.
Today, absolutely nothing remains of the old pneumatic transit system (despite what Ghostbusters II would have us believe… the entire area has been incorporated into New York City’s existing subway system). Even the carriages that people once rode on (which were supposed to be taken to a museum) are unaccounted for.
Alfred Beach is probably one of those guys who doesn’t get enough credit in history. He is essentially the father of the “subway system” that millions of people use on a daily basis. He proved that it could be used as an effective method of transportation around the massive city. While we don’t use pneumatic systems for the subway today, pneumatics were used to transport messages and mail throughout cities in the first half of the 20th Century. To this day, pneumatics are still being experimented with as a form of travel.