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
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
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
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
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
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 © 1988-2018 by John H.
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