Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 83:
BEACH'S SUBWAY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 83.

Today, we build a secret subway. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The first American subway system was built under the oddest circumstances. The year was 1868 -- only five years after a small experimental subway line was first tried out in London. What's even more remarkable is that it was 30 years before regular subway service was finally established in America.

In 1868 Alfred Ely Beach, then the publisher of Scientific American magazine, petitioned the city of New York for something called a postal dispatch charter. That was actually just a ruse -- a smokescreen. It was a way to get legal authorization to build a subway system without letting the city of New York know what he was doing.

Beach's plan was to start a subway line with a small 300-foot demonstration run under Broadway. He wanted to keep it a secret from the corrupt Tammany Hall boss, Tweed, because he knew Tammany Hall would extort extra money before they'd let him dig.

The subway itself sparkled with Beach's ingenuity. He designed his own hydraulically driven shield for workers digging the 9-foot-diameter hole. The English later adopted this design for their own excavations. He put his son in charge of digging the tunnel in secret, at night. The finished tunnel had a single pneumatically-driven car that shuttled people between two sumptuous stations -- with paintings, frescoes, and fine Victorian furniture. It cost Beach $350,000.

When the subway opened two years later, Boss Tweed was enraged. He managed to close it down within a year. Three years later, Tweed was indicted, and Beach's charter to develop a full subway was reinstated. But then a stock-market collapse put Beach out of business for good. The subway was sealed up and forgotten. It was rediscovered only in 1912, during excavations for an extension of the Broadway-Manhattan Transit line -- the BMT. That must have been like stumbling across King Tut's tomb -- all that sealed-up elegance rediscovered after 40 years. Today Beach's tube is a part of the BMT line.

Of course, Beach's legacy is much larger than a fragment of the BMT tunnel. He was a pioneer in the art of tunneling. He helped establish the century-and-a-half-year-old Scientific American magazine. But, primarily, he was a dreamer ahead of his time. And no great engine of our ingenuity has ever been established until dreamers like Beach have pointed our way to it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Allen, O. E., New York's Secret Subway. American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Winter 1997, pp. 44-48.

Bobrick, B., Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology, and War. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1981, 1986, Chapter 6, The Lamp and the Ring.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1474.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode