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The Remarkable Pneumatic People-Mover

Article #315 • Written by Alan Bellows

The ventilation shaft at City Hall Park, 1912
The ventilation shaft at City Hall Park, 1912

On the eighth of February 1912, a small group of officials arrived at City Hall Park on Manhattan's Broadway street. The men gathered at one grassy corner of the park grounds, where a long-neglected iron grating protected the entrance to a seemingly unremarkable ventilation shaft. The heavy, rust-encrusted grille was pried from its resting place, and with lanterns in hand the men descended one by one into the cavity.

About twenty feet below the pavement the group emerged into an eight-foot-wide brickwork tube, the end of which was beyond the immediate reach of the lights. The sturdily-constructed tunnel was a relic from the years following the American Civil War, and it had remained virtually forgotten beneath the streets of New York since its main entrance was sealed sometime around 1880. As the men explored, they found the tunnel in remarkably good condition in spite of its age. When they reached the end of the tube, the men happened upon the wrecked remains of a unique mechanism for transport: a pair of carriages from America's first subway, the experimental and ill-fated Pneumatic Transit System.

In the early 1800s, the city of Manhattan was infested with an overabundance of humans. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825 to link the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, New York's populace quadrupled within a span of a few decades. The metropolis was served by hundreds of horse-drawn public transportation vehicles such as street trolleys and omnibus carts, nevertheless its avenues and boulevards were engorged with carriages and pedestrians. Primitive steam-powered locomotives were put to use in certain areas, but the massive and ungainly contraptions were not yet widely adopted.

Many enterprising individuals concocted mass-transit ideas to address the traffic woes. Due to the scarcity of horizontal space, most inventions involved elevated platforms or underground tunnels. Among the proponents of subterranean transportation was one Alfred Ely Beach, the well-known inventor of a typewriter for the blind, the founder of a school for freed slaves, and the editor of a new publication known as Scientific American.

Traffic on Broadway, 1860
Traffic on Broadway, 1860

In 1849 he wrote an article in his magazine proposing a network of underground tunnels for horse-drawn trolleys, but that fancy passed once he discovered the great strides being made in England in the field of pneumatics.

Although the basic principle of pneumatic tubes was first explored in ancient times, it was not until the turn of the 19th century that practical applications began to appear. It was around that time that the Scottish inventor William Murdoch demonstrated his pneumatic apparatus, a device which used compressed air to whisk notes through a length of pipe to a distant recipient. Among the first to appreciate the potential of such systems was a London tinkerer named George Medhurst, who described some practical large-scale applications in his 1812 pamphlet concisely entitled, "Calculations and Remarks, Tending to Prove the Practicability, Effects and Advantages of a Plan for the Rapid Conveyance of Goods and Passengers Upon an Iron Road Through a Tube of 30 Feet in Area, by the Power and Velocity of Air." Therein, he described a hypothetical pneumatic vehicle:

"...an hollow tube or archway must be constructed the whole distance, or iron, brick, timber, or any other material that will confine the air, and of such dimensions as to admit a four-wheeled carriage to run through it ... The tube must be made air tight, and of the same form and dimensions throughout, having a pair of cast iron wheel-tracks securely laid all along the bottom ... and the carriage must be nearly the size and form of the tube, so as to prevent any considerable quantity of Air from passing by it.

"If the Air is forced into the mouth of the tube behind the carriage, by an engine of sufficient power, it will be driven forward by the pressure of Air against it."

Medhurst went on to describe how a large, stationary steam powerplant could produce enough pressure to propel a carriage to an average swiftness of 50 miles per hour, with a fuel efficiency of 4.2 miles per coal-bushel. At a time when the most common form of propulsion was feet-- either human or horse-- it was exciting to consider the prospect of a feasible high-speed transportation system using combinations of existing technology.

Medhurst was aware that travelers might be averse to spending long journeys sealed within dark tunnels, so he also described a claustrophobia-friendly alternative which later came to be known as the atmospheric railway. He theorized that a twelve-inch-wide iron pipe with a sealable slot along its length could be laid parallel to ordinary surface tracks, and that trains could be connected to a pneumatic piston inside the tube using an arm protruding from the slot.

A section of atmospheric railway at the Didcot Railway Centre
A section of atmospheric railway at the Didcot Railway Centre

Several such atmospheric railways were constructed in Europe during the 1840s, most notably by the innovative British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. One of these peculiar trains achieved an unheard-of 70 miles per hour during trial runs, however due to chronic problems with the leather slot-seals, the technology was quickly abandoned in favor of steam locomotives.

In the meantime, smaller pneumatic tubes proved their usefulness in shuttling telegraph transcriptions betwixt London's central telegraph offices and the Stock Exchange. The newly-formed London Pneumatic Dispatch Company also began installing iron pipes in the earth for the transportation of postal freight. These pressure tubes carried coffin-sized carts between the post offices of London at speeds up to a mile a minute. Eventually a group of investors arranged for a pneumatic-powered passenger-carriage to be installed as a demonstration at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1864 at Sydenham, south London. This working prototype aroused much public interest, but its promoters lollygagged too long, and failed to bring the technology to fruition.

Upon learning of the strides being made by the London boffins, Alfred Beach became one of pneumatics' most enthusiastic stateside advocates. To increase public awareness of pneumatic technology, he financed the construction of a 100-foot-long wooden tube to cross the ceiling of the American Institute Fair in 1867. The steam-powered fan installed at the end of this tunnel created enough vacuum pressure to suck carriagefuls of attendees through the tube's length in mere seconds. It then reversed thrust, gently blowing the delighted passengers back to the portal from whence they entered. In his 1868 treatise on the subject entitled "The Pneumatic Dispatch, with Illustrations," Alfred Beach expounded the advantages of pneumatic locomotion:

"A tube, a car, a revolving fan! Little more is required. The ponderous locomotive, with its various appurtenances, is dispensed with, and the light aerial fluid that we breathe is the substituted motor [...] Hence, the roadway and cars may be very light. The whole pneumatic way being under cover, the road-bed is preserved from damage by the elements, and the transit of the cars is not impeded by snow, ice, floods, or falling rocks. [...] The tube forms the bridge over small streams, dives under broad waters, and rests securely upon marshes. No screeching whistles or jangling bells disturb the community, no turnpikes require to be guarded;

Alfred Beach's demonstration pneumatic carriage at the American Institute Exhibition of 1867
Alfred Beach's demonstration pneumatic carriage at the American Institute Exhibition of 1867

there is no running down of the helpless, no mangling of passengers, no burnings from sparks; no fearful dangers of any kind attend the use of the Pneumatic Dispatch. [...] No dust or cinders are encountered by the passenger, and he reaches his journey's end without injury to his apparel from these causes, and without having the complexion smutted with smoke."

Like most designers of rapid-transit contraptions, Beach hoped to establish a route along Broadway, as it was Manhattan's main thoroughfare. For over twenty years, however, a long succession of such plans had been undone at the hands of Alexander T. Stewart, the richest merchant in the United States. His grandiose Marble Palace was located on the intersection of Broadway and Chambers Street, and he was unwilling to allow any unsightly construction to inconvenience his ultra-wealthy patrons. He and his fellow landowners also worried that any large tunnels would undermine the street's structures. To sidestep this hindrance, Beach's newly-established Beach Pneumatic Transit Company sought a franchise to install a pair of smaller postal tubes below Broadway, thereby avoiding the ire of the street's mighty merchants. Upon approval of the bill, the company successfully amended it to allow the excavation of a single large tunnel wherein the smaller tubes could reside.

In late 1868, the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company acquired a five-year lease on the basement of Devlin’s clothing store on Broadway, and began their conspicuous construction. The details of the endeavor were kept quite secret, but the scale of the operation was evident from the large equipment outside of the building and the cavalcade of horsecarts hauling away mounds of dirt each night. Twenty feet beneath Broadway, a unique machine designed by Alfred Beach himself slowly gnawed a nine-foot-wide passage into the Earth. The business end of the disk-shaped tunneling shield was arrayed with sharp horizontal shelves which masticated the earth until it fell into the tunnel through a number of openings. Using an array of eighteen hydraulic rams, workers forced the shield forward sixteen inches, used wheelbarrows to haul away the loosened earth, erected masonry around the new inches of tunnel, and then repeated the process. Entry into the construction area was strictly limited to Beach Pneumatic Transit employees and the officials from the Croton Aqueduct Department-- the agency responsible for supervising construction of the "postal tube."

The Beach Tunneling Shield
The Beach Tunneling Shield

The mayor of New York City attempted to gain access to perform an inspection of the site, but even he was refused. The public and the press expressed great curiosity regarding the tunnel-making, but Beach and Dixon were determined to forestall the discovery of their true intentions.

On the twenty-sixth of February 1870, Alfred Beach finally exposed his secret tunnel for the inspection of the public. The event was described by one silver-tongued newspaperman as a "Fashionable reception held in the bowels of the Earth." Visitors entered the basement of Devlin’s clothing store by way of a vestibule which had special linked doors on either end; the inner door would not open until the outer door was closed, providing a rudimentary airlock for the pneumatic pressure. Therefrom they emerged into an ornate lobby encrusted with the stuff of high society, including wood trimmings; chandeliers; an ornate, goldfish-filled fountain; and a grand piano. Although electrical service was still a thing of the future, the underground lobby was brilliantly illuminated by a collection of new zircon oxygen/hydrogen gas lamps.

At the far end of the waiting area was the portal to America's first subway, installed "for the purpose of temporarily illustrating, by an actual demonstration, the feasibility of placing a railway under Broadway." The tunnel was framed in handsome brickwork, and two stately bronze effigies of Mercury stood alongside. On a placard above the tunnel hung the words, "Pneumatic / 1870 / Transit." For a fare of two bits per passenger-- all of which was donated to a charity for soldiers' orphans-- twenty guests at a time could take a ride on the pneumatic carriage. The custom-built, fifty-ton blower was situated in an adjacent chamber, separated from the waiting area by a long corridor. The Æolor blower was twenty-one feet high, sixteen feet long, and thirteen feet wide, and it contained two colossal lengthwise paddles which rotated to draw air in through the rear and thrust it out from the front. The magnificent blower was also outfitted with a special set of adjustable baffles which allowed her to switch from suck to blow without reversing rotation. By tapping a telegraph wire, the conductor signaled the boiler engineer to engage the 100 horsepower steam engine. Atmospheric pressure increased by "a few grains per inch," pressing the carriage into the tunnel as the air rushed to escape through the vent at the far end. As quoted in a company booklet, a visitor described her experience on the Pneumatic Transit:

"We took our seats in the pretty car, the gayest company of twenty that ever entered a vehicle; the conductor touched a telegraph wire on the wall of the tunnel; and before we knew it, so gentle was the start, we were in motion, moving from Warren street down Broadway. In a few moments the conductor opened the door, and called out, Murray street! with a business-like air that made us all shout with laughter. The car came to a rest in the gentlest possible style, and immediately began to move back to Warren street, where it had no sooner arrived, than in the same gentle and mysterious manner it moved back again to Murray street [...] Our atmospheric ride was most delightful, and our party left the car satisfied by actual experience that the pneumatic system of traveling is one of the greatest improvements of the day."

A sketch of the pneumatic carriage and lobby
A sketch of the pneumatic carriage and lobby

With a sufficiently powerful blower, it was theoretically possible to accelerate a pneumatic carriage up to almost 700 miles per hour, a far cry faster than the horse-drawn rattletraps of the surface-travelers. In another anecdote, a visitor described a harrowing encounter with the blower:

"After we had had our ride, it was only natural of course, that we should wish to explore the source from whence came the pneumatic pressure that had so mysteriously carried us along under Broadway. Accordingly, under the guidance of one of the polite officials of the company, provided with lanterns, we entered the air-passage, or duct, which opens into the waiting-room near the mouth of the tunnel. [...] As we went in, we felt a gentle breeze; but after we arrived at the mouth of the great blower, and while we were gazing in wonder at the motions of the gigantic blowing-wings, the engineer put on more steam and increased the speed, so that the blast instantly became a hurricane of frightful power. Hats, bonnets, shawls, handkerchiefs, and every loose thing, were snatched away from our hands and swept into the tunnel; while all of us, unable to stand against the tornado, hastily retreated from the machine to a corner of the air-box, where we were slightly sheltered. At this juncture the speed of the Æolor was reduced, the storm was over, and only a gentle summer's breeze issued from its enormous throat."

During its first two weeks of operation, the Beach Pneumatic Transit sold over 11,000 rides, and enjoyed lavish praise from the public and the press. With the help of Senator William M. Tweed, Beach began lobbying for the expansion of the Broadway line, as well as the construction of other pneumatic tubes throughout the city. Legislators were troubled by the broad authority the bill granted to Beach's organization, and consequently it did not come to pass. In 1872, after "Boss" Tweed was arrested for massive corruption and embezzlement, Alfred Beach attempted to rewrite history to capitalize on the public's scorn. He claimed that Tweed had not been a supporter of the project, rather he had undermined the pneumatic underdog in favor of the competing elevated railroads.

Cutaway diagram of the pneumatic blower
Cutaway diagram of the pneumatic blower

The public accepted this fabrication with such enthusiasm that the distorted facts still taint many modern retellings. But after three long years of grappling with the law, this manipulation of public sentiment helped Beach to gain approval for a modified bill in 1873, awarding his company with the legal franchise to bore beneath New York city's streets. The company engineers began drawing up plans and making surveys, estimating a relatively low cost of one million dollars per mile to install a double track. Mere months later, however, the air was let out of their pneumatic ambitions. Excessive speculation in post-Civil-War railroads had created an investment bubble which burst in 1873, triggering a severe economic depression in the US. In the wake of this calamity, investors in rapid-transit projects were nowhere to be found.

In the years that followed, Beach Pneumatic Transit lost their lease on the Devlin building basement, and the tunnel's entrance was sealed with a wall of brick. In September 1878, Alfred E Beach resigned as president of the company and moved on to other endeavors, having invested over $200,000 of his own money in the ill-fated project. He died in 1896. Two years later, the Devlin's building was destroyed by a spectacular fire, along with whatever was left of the ornate trappings of the abandoned lobby. When the building was rebuilt in 1900, the hastily-assembled brick wall was replaced with one of concrete, leaving the ventilation shaft in City Hall Park as the only means of ingress to the prototype pneumatic tunnel. Beach's experimental subway lay virtually forgotten beneath the busy street until the officials from the Public Service Commission paid it a visit in 1912. Their task was to organize the disassembly of the tunnel to clear the way for a new electric subway line; Beach's vision for subterranean transit below Broadway was finally becoming a reality. Aside from the rusted rails, the tube was found in excellent repair. Beach's pneumatic carriages were also found inside, and though they had somewhat disintegrated due to age and neglect, there was still evidence of their once-opulent decor and upholstery. Additionally, at the end of the tunnel, Beach's innovative tunneling shield remained, its wooden teeth still sunk into the earth.

Beach's original proposal for a network of pneumatic postal tubes also became a reality after he disembarked from the realm of the living. Around the turn of the century, New York City began installing hundreds of miles of medium-sized pneumatic tunnels to ferry freight between post offices, and some of these lines remained in operation until 1953. Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes. Many miles of these decommissioned iron transportation tunnels still linger beneath the streets of New York.

Today, the City Hall Station of the New York Subway encompasses the entire area once occupied by the Pneumatic Subway. During the new station's excavation, the Beach Tunneling Shield and one of the passenger carriages were disassembled and removed with the intent to preserve them; but neither can be accounted for after 1918. Also, according to newspaper reports from 1932, the New York Historical Society commissioned a plaque honoring Alfred E Beach to be placed in the City Hall station, however there is no evidence of such a memorial there today. Essentially there are no physical remains of Beach's experimental and ambitious subway project; it exists only in the fickle aether of history.

The notion of pneumatic transit was revisited in the 1960s by Lockheed and MIT, with the assistance of the United States Department of Commerce. Together the organizations conducted feasibility studies on a system of magnetically levitated tube-trains powered by ambient atmospheric pressure and "gravitational pendulum assist." Such pneumatic vactrain technology was demonstrated to be a superior mode of transportation in many ways, not the least of which was speed-- the study indicated a typical line could achieve an average velocity of 390 miles per hour. The system was never built due to the enormous expense of such an undertaking, although research into related technologies continues even today. Perhaps in the distant future mankind will traverse the countryside in a pnetwork of pneumatic tubes; and if that fine day ever comes, Mr Alfred E Beach and his extraordinary 138-year-old experiment will finally be vindicated.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 29 February 2008. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Topic suggested by Steve Keppel-Jones..
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83 Comments
sourav
Posted 29 February 2008 at 03:30 am

First.


markdem
Posted 29 February 2008 at 03:46 am

That is DamnInteresting, I wounder how much presser was needed to move that train along


hambeet
Posted 29 February 2008 at 04:16 am

"traverse the countryside in a pnetwork"
Oh no you didn't!

Great article Alan. First time poster but long time reader. Once again, DI delivers.


^love *encounter ~flow
Posted 29 February 2008 at 04:34 am

FOURTH!

now to go on reading


drTexas
Posted 29 February 2008 at 04:45 am

They should have built it in D.C. They could have tapped the hot air from congress for free.

D.I. Alan. Thanks again.


Lisette
Posted 29 February 2008 at 04:48 am

Informative article, but too long.


donlaudanny
Posted 29 February 2008 at 05:11 am

Reading this article reminds me a lot of maglev.


GeorgeAR
Posted 29 February 2008 at 05:18 am

Now there's an engineering feat that really blows.
DI as usual. Thanks.


kgy121
Posted 29 February 2008 at 05:24 am

Poor Beach. If only Boss Tweed had put some of that embezzled money into the project. Then we might have had a much more efficient system of transit in New York, and wouldn't be such a big polluter. $200,000 of his own money, and not even a plaque! Oh, and top ten!


stevekj
Posted 29 February 2008 at 06:02 am

Hey, my name in lights! How exciting! I had no idea that Boss Tweed was actually in support of this project, though - the version I read was one of the "modern retellings" that had things Beach's way, in which Tweed was one of the factors involved in scuttling the whole thing. The truth is even more DI!


InterestedOne
Posted 29 February 2008 at 06:14 am

It's incredible the things people have already accomplished, that we are just now, discovering (in this Age). Maybe one day we'll understand, and be able to apply the scientific and engineering principles used to create the (original) 7 wonders of the world. Either way, thanks Alan for this peek into a technological innovation of Man from the 19th century, that's still in use today. (Banks, e.g.)


sd9sd
Posted 29 February 2008 at 07:04 am

Enjoyed reading the article! Sad, that good technology sometimes gets crushed out.
The article reminded me of the story of Dunlop, who invented pneumatic tyres (out of a garden hose) for his son's cycle race :)


tampagirl
Posted 29 February 2008 at 07:41 am

American Heritage Dictionary -
boffin (bŏf'ĭn) n. Chiefly British Slang
A scientist, especially one engaged in research.
Just to spare some others from doing the research....good word use!


Bolens
Posted 29 February 2008 at 08:45 am

Brilliant minds. Well done article. And once again some jerk trumps progress. Subtreraneon "flight" to anywhere would be an awesome ticket. One would have to run the cost effectiveness numbers, but once constructed... way cool. Except New York. hehe.


ggnutsc
Posted 29 February 2008 at 08:57 am

I had heard about this before, though I had never really read anything specific about it. Usually I thought of it when I was at the drive through bank watching the tube go to and from the teller in the bank. Most people don't realize how little pressure is needed to move something when there is adequate surface area to apply it to. One would have to believe that this is still valid technology, for moving items from one location to another without the use of roads, trucks, trafic,or other surface transportation issues. Imagine Fedex installing a pipeline between Hubs/major cities to move parcels, as opposed to aircraft, and trucks.

I was curious enough that I did some quick figuring and found One PSI of pressure against the nine foot diameter car that Beach used would create about 9000 Lbs of force for moving the car along the track...


GigsTaggart
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:05 am

To the pressure question, not much!

2Pi*r is the surface area of the rear of the train. If it were 9 feet diameter, that's 4.5 feet radius, so 54 inch radius, so 339 square inches.

At say, 2 psi, that's 678 pounds of thrust behind it. That's plenty to get it rolling. So it wouldn't take a whole lot of pressure.


GigsTaggart
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:07 am

And of course I completely screwed up the math, it being Pi*r^2 :P

ggnutsc had it right, it's closer to 9000 pound of thrust per 1 psi.


mikecd
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:09 am

"Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes." Hilarious.


sid
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:27 am

I believe Subway has reference to this in its sandwich shops. At least, I kind of recall seeing reproductions of news articles in at least a few. And a theoretical top speed of 700mph? Wow! One possible error, though. Shouldn't "either human and horse" in the sixth para (I believe) be "either human or horse"?


FMZ
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:41 am

Wow, DI as always. Alan, kudos and thanks to you for keeping me engrossed in yet another topic that has become marginalized for cultural, geographical or temporal reasons.

As a side note, the Wikipedia article on this subject has a picture of the tunnel portal, which is said to appear in the murals on the walls of Subway restaurants. I'll have to keep an eye out for that next time I go in for my footlong tuna on wheat with american cheese, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, salt and pepper, extra mayo sub. :D


FMZ
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:44 am

sid, pipped me to the punch on the Subway reference!

Also, mikecd, I laughed too. A DI article about a series of tubes... it's not a big truck.....


Stoney
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:56 am

"Hats, bonnets, shawls, handkerchiefs, and every loose thing, were snatched away from our hands and swept into the tunnel; " I'd be pissed, what a bunch of jerks, no wonder their project never came to fruition. Did those nice people ever get their items back?

/sarcasm


Kao_Valin
Posted 29 February 2008 at 11:34 am

Stoney said: "Did those nice people ever get their items back?"

I was surprised to hear they werent hit by a train as I was reading this. They kinda deserve it. Then again, they didnt have wikipedia or DI back then. Had to find out DI stuff somehow. Cant tell you how much money I save on hats, handkerchiefs, and loose things thanks to DI.

"Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes." - I think I missed a reference here...


sid
Posted 29 February 2008 at 01:06 pm

Also, this sentence gives me a little trouble:

"The Æolor blower was twenty-one feet high, sixteen feet long, and thirteen feet wide, and it contained two colossal lengthwise paddles which rotated to draw air in one side and out the other."

While I understand the message it is trying to convey, the way it is written, structurally, makes it sound like you are saying the blower draws air in one side, and "draws" it out the other. Would it make more sense to say something like "draw air in one side and blow/push it out the other"? A bit nit-picky, perhaps, or maybe I'm missing something in how the blower operated.


sh0cktopus
Posted 29 February 2008 at 01:21 pm

GeorgeAR said: "Now there's an engineering feat that really blows.
DI as usual. Thanks."

Actually, half of the time it really sucks.


examancer
Posted 29 February 2008 at 01:45 pm

Fantastic article. DI as usual. I disagree with Lisette about it being too long. I don't visit DI for a quick summary of something, I visit this site for engrossing and in depth look at something that is DI! Keep up the good work Alan!!!


DaveS
Posted 29 February 2008 at 02:28 pm

I see someone else mentioned Subway sandwich shops, which feature an artist impressions of Beech and the first subway. Pretty cool to see now that DI has educated us all.

There's also a song about it by Klaatu, called Sub-rosa Subway.


baconbits
Posted 29 February 2008 at 02:36 pm

examancer said: "Fantastic article. DI as usual. I disagree with Lisette about it being too long. I don't visit DI for a quick summary of something, I visit this site for engrossing and in depth look at something that is DI! Keep up the good work Alan!!!"

Damn straight! And thanks for another DI article!


sid
Posted 29 February 2008 at 03:07 pm

And I'll stop picking nits with this:

"The magnificent blower was outfitted with a special set of adjustable baffles which allowed her to switch from suck to blow without reversing rotation."

Technically, isn't it constantly sucking AND blowing, and the baffles just redirect in which direction the air is being moved? In relation to how it causes the carriage to move, then clearly there is a suck/blow difference. But its general function seems to be creating/directing air flow. I'm not an engineer, so it is entirely possible I'm just misunderstanding the technical aspects of the blower, or any blower, for that matter. Or maybe I just like to write "suck" and "blow" a lot, and was looking for an excuse to do so that was socially acceptable.


Poor
Posted 29 February 2008 at 03:14 pm

"Oh, my God. It's Mega Maid. She's gone from suck to blow!"
I remember the newspaper mural from Subway and always wondered about the odd carriage it showed. Damn Interesting!


Silverhill
Posted 29 February 2008 at 04:12 pm

InterestedOne said: "It's incredible the things people have already accomplished, that we are just now, discovering (in this Age). Maybe one day we'll understand, and be able to apply the scientific and engineering principles used to create the (original) 7 wonders of the world."
The Seven Wonders were not constructed by means unavailable to us. The Colossus of Rhodes was a cast-bronze statue; the Hanging Gardens of Babylon did not involve any difficult engineering; the Temple of Artemis (Diana) was built of stone (which did not, however, keep one Herostratus, who wanted to ensure that his name would be remembered, from setting fire to the place); the Mausoleum was of heroic scale, but was "just" good stonework, as were the great Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria and the Pyramids of Giza; the statue of Zeus at Olympia would only be difficult to reproduce today because of the ban on the sale of ivory.
There remain some questions about some of the construction details of the Pyramids; at least one modern engineer believes that the blocks of stone could have been cast like concrete rather than quarried and hauled. Impressive for the time, and overall impressive in any age, but not done with "lost" technology that we only wish we could reproduce.


Criggie
Posted 29 February 2008 at 04:22 pm

Informative article, and an excellent length. Some DI articles leave questions unanswered - this one doesn't. Also thanks for captioning the attached pictures - makes them far more informative.


Dean
Posted 29 February 2008 at 04:39 pm

Imagine if the fan broke and wouldn't turn from push to suck, the passengers could've got forced to the end of the tunnel then crushed by the 9000 pounds of pressure. Don't they do something like that when making thousands of potatoes into chips, with a wire grill at the end of the tunnel? DI article!


another viewpoint
Posted 29 February 2008 at 06:17 pm

..."however, the air was let out of their pneumatic ambitions."...cute...really freaking cute!

The principle of the blower used is still used today...positive displacement. And, as indicated, what blows out of one side of the blower must be sucked into the other side. The concept is not only used for normally aspirated internal combustion engines, it is also used as a means of metering gas flow.

All in all, DI and neat stuff. Thanks Alan.


Alan Bellows
Posted 29 February 2008 at 06:57 pm

sid said: "While I understand the message it is trying to convey, the way it is written, structurally, makes it sound like you are saying the blower draws air in one side, and "draws" it out the other. Would it make more sense to say something like "draw air in one side and blow/push it out the other"?"

You're right, that bit was rather rough... I've smoothed it out a bit. Thanks also for spotting the other typo. I should know better than to post at 3 in the morning.


pencilnub
Posted 29 February 2008 at 07:06 pm

Here's a picture to so you can get a better idea of how this thing worked.

Page Link
Direct Link

I could not figure out how this thing worked by reading the article. The picture clears it up.

The blower would source air from the ventilation shaft to send the car from the station to the destination. To bring it back, two valves redirected air flow so air from the tunnel sourced the blower, and it blew air into the ventilation shaft. At least that's how I see it. I'd like to see a better diagram.

Poor, I'm glad someone added the Spaceballs reference.


supercalafragalistic
Posted 29 February 2008 at 07:35 pm

Poor said: ""Oh, my God. It's Mega Maid. She's gone from suck to blow!!"

Nice reference to Spaceballs!!!
Allan: I especially enjoyed this:
"700 miles per hour, a far cry faster than the horse-drawn rattletraps of the surface-travelers."
You truly are a writer's writer in that the references, humor and style add so much more to the content. Your sarcasm in the quote I just quoted is duly noted because the idea that such advanced technology existed back then is frustrating even now that we can't use it for it's fullest potential. Think of interior design. We could just build a tube from the refrigerator to the couch!! Or on a more practical note, from the hospital pharmacy to the patient bedside.

Even though this thing uses air it still needs gasoline and electricity to run, doesn't it? Is it more or less efficient than cars?


J.K.
Posted 29 February 2008 at 10:59 pm

Wow...first thing that came to mind was Ghostbusters 2 on this story.

"We're breaking through. I see some light...", began the words of Ray Stantz as he was lowered down a hole dug in one of New York's busy streets. "I'm in some kind of a chamber. There's tile work... Pneumatic Transit. I can't believe it: Its part of the old Pneumatic Transit system. Its still here...", said Ray.

I never bothered to look it up so this makes this all the more damn interesting to me by association of a real classic 80s movie.


subtle.nature
Posted 01 March 2008 at 02:06 am

"Perhaps in the distant future mankind will traverse the countryside in a pnetwork of pneumatic tubes; and if that fine day ever comes, Mr Alfred E Beach and his extraordinary 138-year-old experiment will finally be vindicated."

Unfortunately for Mr. Beach and others of the Durin geneology, the zero-point energy theory of Einstein and Stern has been realized to such an extent as to effectively banish underground, pneumatic transportation to the annals of interesting-but-impractical science. Of course we might have to filch a few bits of black budget knowhow from the military industrial complex before Mach 20 is the new 65 mph, but I have a feeling that this need-to-know basis for governance will run its course before we need steal anything.

In an effort to curb relevant discussion and completely divert future posts into the nether regions of the human conscious, I will pose a few questions to my fellow serfs. Firstly, how did the common man come to be ruled by a system of government that is allowed to obtain and keep information in secrecy, under the perdurable excuse of 'national security'? And secondly, is anyone else absolutely befuddled by the accepted theory that ignorance can somehow keep us 'safe'?

Please keep all responses in the mammalian frame of reference.


Cloudshadow
Posted 01 March 2008 at 04:03 am

Boring. NEXT!


cinndave
Posted 01 March 2008 at 05:34 am

Hey! That is one huge Roots Pump he's using there! Clever. That invention was only a few years old at the time. This was truly cutting-edge. What I'm wondering about now is energy efficiency. How energy-efficient is this compared to steam trains and modern subways?


FlatPepsi
Posted 01 March 2008 at 07:13 am

" Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes."

LOL!

-Mitch, using "A Seriese of Tubes" (aka the Internet)


cjoyce
Posted 01 March 2008 at 01:33 pm

IIRC isn't the motif for the wallpaper in Subway restaurants a montage of news articles about the Pneumatic Rail System?


K8theGr8
Posted 01 March 2008 at 02:54 pm

Well, that is pretty DI.

cjoyce: No, it's a map of the NYC Subway System, except behind the food counter, where it's "brick", or brick-print wallpaper. Trust me.


islandavy
Posted 01 March 2008 at 04:40 pm

Read mention of seven wonders of world... regarding pyramids, blocks were laid using hydraulics, stone faces were cut using multi axis machines. I hear you all saying"no way"!
Check out pyramid pump on net. specifically search for hydraulic pulse generator. I have seen the model and felt the reality of the theory.
Now consider this brief theory, hopefully, meteor impact to earth occurs in present location of Gulf of mexico, causes Grand Canyon ,tectonic plates are just the earths sphere moving after being cracked by same meteor, draining of great sea that also held "Atlantis", Joshua trees share structure of coral. Cliff dwellings, steps cut into side, then ladders and then carved steps? Rethink the sequence, water level dropped, ladders used , water level drops again, cut small slots, water level drops again, move to new location. Commuting is too strenuous. Besides have to follow the fish. Seriously, check out the pyramid thing, and then think about what we do to get to space. Serious wonderment at "lost" knowledge. I am no scientist, but I really wonder about some theories that everyone accepts as fact, when it is just another theory, besides everyone has one, right?


Web
Posted 01 March 2008 at 10:26 pm

It's creepy thinking about what all may be going on right under your feet without you knowing about it.

Islandavy, your post gave me a headache. I agree we should follow the lost fish into the pyramids of knowledge though.


farmer-dave
Posted 01 March 2008 at 11:13 pm

"Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes. "

But according to Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) the Internet is "a series of tubes".

Surely the Internet is more efficient at moving information than trucks?


Nonesuch
Posted 02 March 2008 at 10:14 am

Alan Bellows said: "You're right, that bit was rather rough… I've smoothed it out a bit. Thanks also for spotting the other typo. I should know better than to post at 3 in the morning."

also no doubt due to being a leap day ... thanks for the fine and DI info as always, but see if you can be smoother in 4 years ;)


stratus65
Posted 02 March 2008 at 01:04 pm

Pretty nifty. But how many vehicles can you move simultaneously per tube? I might be missing something, but it would seem like a pretty limited method of moving masses of people, without a crazy amount of tubes.
I'm still trying to figure out we aren't updating to high speed rail to relieve the air routes?


CptPicard
Posted 02 March 2008 at 05:36 pm


"Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes." - I think I missed a reference here…"

Well, a truck is actually quite efficient at moving information around in the bandwidth sense. You can do the math to see it -- a truckload of Blu-Ray discs beats optic fiber. So trucks are better than the Internet, which is not, as you know, like a truck, but more like a series of tubes...


dacoobob
Posted 02 March 2008 at 06:33 pm

CptPicard, that reminds me of the mini-article "Penises have higher bandwidth than cable modems": http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=973934
Pretty amusing


vonmeth
Posted 02 March 2008 at 08:22 pm

CptPicard said: "Well, a truck is actually quite efficient at moving information around in the bandwidth sense. You can do the math to see it — a truckload of Blu-Ray discs beats optic fiber. So trucks are better than the Internet, which is not, as you know, like a truck, but more like a series of tubes…"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Series_of_tubes

For those who are still not following.


GeorgeAR
Posted 03 March 2008 at 05:49 am

Poor said: ""Oh, my God. It's Mega Maid. She's gone from suck to blow!"
I remember the newspaper mural from Subway and always wondered about the odd carriage it showed. Damn Interesting!"

You beat me to the quote! Ha!


Richard Solensky
Posted 03 March 2008 at 06:25 am

Well done, Alan! I've read about the Beach Line in the past, but never in such detail.

I don't think we need shed any tears over the failure of the Pneumatic Subway. The idea was ahead of its time. And when it became time, the technology was out of date. Beach's legacy is well served by Scientific American, anyway.

Actually, now that we can let computers run things, pneumatic shipping systems are getting a serious second look over routes with short distances and high volume. Imagine "packet switching" where the packets are not clumps of data but actual capsules containing mail, bulk goods, and other time-sensitive materials...

http://www.computerworld.com/softwaretopics/software/appdev/story/0,10801,58976,00.html


luvcraft
Posted 03 March 2008 at 09:13 am

Thanks! Now I finally have context for all those pneumatic subway illustrations on the walls of Subway restaurants. :)


Silverhill
Posted 03 March 2008 at 10:36 am

subtle.nature said: "Unfortunately for Mr. Beach and others of the Durin geneology, the zero-point energy theory of Einstein and Stern has been realized to such an extent as to effectively banish underground, pneumatic transportation to the annals of interesting-but-impractical science."
??? Just what does the ZPE have to do with pneumatic transportation?

Cloudshadow said: "Boring. NEXT!"
One man's boring is another man's fascinating, Cloudshadow. Try contributing something more substantial, OK?

islandavy said: "Now consider this brief theory, hopefully, meteor impact to earth occurs in present location of Gulf of mexico, causes Grand Canyon ,"
No. The Grand Canyon far postdates the Chicxulub impact. Besides, it was formed by the erosive action of the Colorado River, not by some catastrophic cracking or flooding (as alleged by Walter Brown in his silly Hydroplate Theory as an "explanation" of the Noachic Flood).
"tectonic plates are just the earths sphere moving after being cracked by same meteor,"
No. The tectonic plates far predate the Chicxulub impact.
"draining of great sea that also held "Atlantis","
First demonstrate the existence (at some time) of Atlantis. Then demonstrate that a great sea was drained, and where the water went.
"Joshua trees share structure of coral."
Joshua trees resemble a few of the large number of types of coral structure, but that's merely coincidence. Look at the types of coral illustrated at, for instance, the Wikipedia article on coral.
"Cliff dwellings, steps cut into side, then ladders and then carved steps? Rethink the sequence, water level dropped, ladders used , water level drops again, cut small slots, water level drops again, move to new location. Commuting is too strenuous."
I'm not an archaeologist, but I suspect that the ladders were used where the local slope was too steep for steps.
"Seriously, check out the pyramid thing, and then think about what we do to get to space."
Do you mean to say that hydraulic-pulse pumps are the key to getting into space? Please inform NASA et al.


Silverhill
Posted 03 March 2008 at 07:11 pm

Dean said: "Imagine if the fan broke and wouldn't turn from push to suck, the passengers could've got forced to the end of the tunnel then crushed by the 9000 pounds of pressure."
There's an important difference between pressure and force. That 9000 pounds force, not pressure, is the total force over the entire area of the rear of the train. The force on any given square inch is only 1 pound or so; not nearly enough to crush things such as these. (Remember that the ordinary atmospheric pressure on the train is 14.7 PSI---much greater than that from the blower.) Since the train's structure was strong enough to withstand such mild forces without caving in, it would not be able to collapse under such force if it were to stall. (Consider also that at the start of a journey, the train was not moving, but was not then caved in by the blower pressure.)
Anyway, if the blower's valves got stuck, the operators would just turn the machine off. The passengers would then just walk to the nearest exit (or wait until someone came with a lantern), and there would be no further problems.


jeffrey kilpatrick
Posted 04 March 2008 at 04:22 am

tell arcangiel if you want rackterring with word meaning with god and the devil why dont you go to the animal kindom and straten it out cause isahia is smarter cause animla loved and were faithful to adam still after tree time travlers might be the problem not the answer god could be brainswashed from the other microchsmic race in the wine press PETER PLEASE


Hoekstes
Posted 04 March 2008 at 05:07 am

jeffrey kilpatrick said: "tell arcangiel if you want rackterring with word meaning with god and the devil why dont you go to the animal kindom and straten it out cause isahia is smarter cause animla loved and were faithful to adam still after tree time travlers might be the problem not the answer god could be brainswashed from the other microchsmic race in the wine press PETER PLEASE"

Pneumatic tube between your ears?


Radiatidon
Posted 04 March 2008 at 07:30 am

Silverhill said: "Anyway, if the blower's valves got stuck, the operators would just turn the machine off. The passengers would then just walk to the nearest exit (or wait until someone came with a lantern), and there would be no further problems."

Excellent response sir, well done and well explained. Though I need to add one minor correction. If the tube car had at least two politicians on board, well to put it mildly, there is enough wind generated if you get them into a debate to push the car quickly to the next station. Or have some tax collectors gather at the next station and tell them the car has at least one individual on board delinquent in their taxes. Since those guys could suck the life out of anything, I’m sure they could suck that tube car right to the station toot-sweet! ;)

As for wind pressure, I have stood at cliff faces in Hawaii and leaned into the wind over the precipice. As long as the wind has sufficient pressure it will keep you there, otherwise you go for a dip. Quite enjoyable, really.

During construction of some equipment arks to be used in the desert, we were on the end of the tarmac at an air force base. One jet jockey took his F-16 over us on take-off and pulled back on the stick and hit his afterburners. The pressure wave blew me across the concrete like a tumbleweed. I was not hurt, but was amazed at the force from the jet’s engines.

Having experience this, I can see how simple such a concept this system really was.


klone
Posted 04 March 2008 at 10:38 am

i have heard of this before... in Ghostbusters 2, Ray (Dan Akroyd) was posing as a telephone worker, and had been lowered down under the street too look for ghosty goo, and found the river of slime flowing through "the old Pneumatic Transit line". once again a movie with a plot flaw, too bad it took me this long to figure it out.


janestar
Posted 04 March 2008 at 01:11 pm

Speaking of tunnels... I was brought to this site via an article written in April 2007 about the Supercollider that was GOING to be built in Texas until funding was pulled from the project...
any word on picking up where we left off?


Silverhill
Posted 04 March 2008 at 04:11 pm

jeffrey kilpatrick
This is your reader.

jeffrey kilpatrick said: "tell arcangiel if you want rackterring with word meaning with god and the devil why dont you go to the animal kindom and straten it out cause isahia is smarter cause animla loved and were faithful to adam still after tree time travlers might be the problem not the answer god could be brainswashed from the other microchsmic race in the wine press PETER PLEASE"
This is your reader on drugs.


oldmancoyote
Posted 04 March 2008 at 06:46 pm

I'm completely puzzled by the time travelling trees. I guess maybe they were looking for less polluted times. The wine press peter (or is PETER) is obviously beyond my capacity. Sign me HOPELESSLY LOST.


jparenti
Posted 05 March 2008 at 11:56 pm

After reading this, I'm actually quite proud of myself. I had always thought there was a connection between Ghostbusters II and the wallpaper at Subway. My friends thought I was mad, since it was 1995 and the Internet was still a slow novelty unavailable to me. Alas, I could not check the series of tubes regarding this different series of tubes. You have vindicated and educated me. Great work as always.


Dave Group
Posted 06 March 2008 at 02:05 am

Terrific article, as always. Not too long and completely fascinating. And, unlike many sites, many of the readers comments are worth reading, as well.

BTW: First! (Procrastinators are tomorrow's leaders of yesterday!)


purple_frogs
Posted 06 March 2008 at 12:52 pm

#49, good questions... to which I'd also like to add, how would this approach work with multiple stations? Would each station need to have its own blower, and if so, how does the air get directed into the tunnel without having the fan block the tracks? Can there be more than one car in each segment at a time, or is the entire system restricted to one car per blower?

The technology might be great for moving a single car of 20 passengers back and forth between two stations, but it doesn't sound like it would scale well at all.

stratus65 said: "Pretty nifty. But how many vehicles can you move simultaneously per tube? I might be missing something, but it would seem like a pretty limited method of moving masses of people, without a crazy amount of tubes.


Virtualchuck
Posted 06 March 2008 at 08:21 pm

Here's the LONG version which answers just about every question (took me a week to read it all!) http://www.columbia.edu/~brennan/beach/index.html

Also as a side note here is a great DI website about the underground freight railroad in Chicago which casused "The Great Chicago Flood"

http://users.ameritech.net/chicagotunnel/tunnel1.html

Chuck


drizen
Posted 07 March 2008 at 12:16 am

AWESOME ARTICLE ALAN! As Always,
However this time my thanks go to the posters.
I've been an avid, reader, learner and alround FREAK for this site for quite a while, and when I think about what is the attraction with DI, and it's not just the factual interesting stuff that the DI team dig up and research.....it's YOU! The POSTERS.
You guys and girls are the most mixed bunch of all sorts and I want to give a BIG THANKYOU for the comments. Some are very researched and quite informative, others are good back and forth arguments, even the ones that just give praise to the article.
You have no idea how re-assuring and comfortable it make me feel to know that there are people out there who still seek and find, ask and learn. You people are great.


Rage Is The New Black
Posted 07 March 2008 at 09:06 pm

It's interesting that this is a relatively unknown fact, I found out about it in a childrens' movie (can't remember the name but it had little immigrant mice in it ^_^ ) when I was 9, I didn't really ever think other people didn't know about it.


83engineer
Posted 08 March 2008 at 11:45 am

DI article! hey is it just me or did anyone else pick up on the tunneling shield as really a tunnel boring machine , way back then ? i guess good ideas never die , just get rediscovered.


Silverhill
Posted 08 March 2008 at 11:50 pm

Rage Is The New Black said: "a children's movie (can't remember the name but it had little immigrant mice in it ^_^ )"
Perhaps you are remembering Don Bluth's 1986 film An American Tail, with Fievel Mousekewitz and friends (and enemies)?


JustcallmeChug
Posted 11 March 2008 at 11:08 am

I love it! Great article and inteligent banter. This is my first visit to DI, and I must say it restores my faith. It is refreshing to see a blog without name-calling and an abundance of ignorance. You people are great!


JustcallmeChug
Posted 11 March 2008 at 11:41 am

Wonderful. Interesting article and (for the most part) inteligent responses. It is so refreshing to see a blog that is not riddled with profanity and name calling. I am certainly no prude, but the ignorance infesting most web sites is overwhelming. This is my first visit to DI, but it will not be my last. My compliments to Silverhill......good answers.


Silverhill
Posted 11 March 2008 at 02:17 pm

Radiatidon and JustcallmeChug, thanks for the compliments! I do enjoy learning, and doing what I can to help others with that pursuit.


Ms.Scarlet
Posted 11 March 2008 at 09:18 pm

I agree with JustcallmeChug. This is a great site, and I wish I'd come across it sooner! The exchanges between the commenters are (for the most part) funny and smart. And the articles really are damn interesting, not to mention well-written.


Fabes61
Posted 13 March 2008 at 07:33 pm

Great article. Way long before reading this, I was thinking that this could be employed under water using a glass tube to get passengers between our Islands, then I saw something on Discovery channel about the concept of doing it across the atlantic. I was so excited about it, just thinking I had thought about it without seeing or hearing about it at all. I would still like to see it done on a smaller scale between Islands. Thanks DI, well done.


Rachelita
Posted 02 May 2008 at 04:48 pm

You know, with our energy issues maybe its time to revisit this as a valid idea... just a thought.


Spamboy
Posted 15 May 2008 at 07:44 am

Excellent article. Thanks for posting it!


Humbaba3000BC
Posted 16 May 2008 at 12:58 pm

Fertility as a function of intelligence

Laying aside for a moment ethical issues I'd like to examine the demographic economic paradox. Or rather recast it as a demographic/intelligence analysis.

Is there any data on the Internet showing the relationship between fertility and intelligence? My guess would be that the truly feebleminded, those most likely to be sterilized, would have a low fertility rate. If this is so then such sterilization programs would be of little value.

Looking for data,
Humbaba


Humbaba3000BC
Posted 16 May 2008 at 01:04 pm

Sorry -- Wrong Thread.
Perhaps I should not have been allowed to have children ;-)


Atreides83
Posted 06 February 2014 at 10:06 pm

farmer-dave said: ""Ultimately, however, trucks proved more efficient at information-moving than the series of tubes. "

But according to Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) the Internet is "a series of tubes".
Surely the Internet is more efficient at moving information than trucks?"

Not on a large scale.

http://what-if.xkcd.com/31/


RayN
Posted 14 September 2014 at 12:20 pm

I have studied this and many similar articles time and time again and am convinced with the right team and financial backing a modern day underground railway, far better than HS2, much much faster and safer would be possible. I could at least double the efficiency and easily half the weight of the carriages, just need some tekkies and money. Where do I start ?


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