By now you’ve all heard of Elon Musk’s idea to build a gigantic pneumatic tube system to move people, cargo, and even cars between San Francisco and LA in like half an hour.
On Bloomberg the other day there was a fascinating article pointing out that, not only was the idea of moving people via pneumatic tubes previously conceived of in the 19th century, one guy in New York actually built a working prototype of such a system in 1867 that moved thousands of people between Murray and Warren streets downtown, during the Boss Tweed era!
That’s right, Alfred Ely Beach proposed an entire system for urban mass transit based on pneumatic tubes, and he built a prototype to show that it could be done. If you read his entire proposal here (and you should definitely take a look—the other drawings are fascinating), you can see that he planned to even have subway-like cars pushed throughout the city using pneumatic power. As proof of concept, however, folks could walk into the basement of a building on Murray Street and get whisked over to Warren Street. Thousands of people apparently did it, and the larger proposal looked like it was going to go through, except that Boss Tweed’s apparent enthusiasm for the scheme ended up killing it when Tweed was finally nailed for corruption.
Now this isn’t as crazy or unprecedented as you might think. During the 19th century and into the 20th, many European cities had pneumatic tube systems used for moving around messages and small items. In fact, here’s a photo of a sort of connection room in London that apparently made it into the 20th century:
Interestingly, a pneumatic tube system in London ended up playing a crucial role during the telegraphy era: Undersea signals originating from the US and making it into the UK didn’t have enough oomph left to make it into noisy London, so the telegraphs were printed out on paper and sent into London via the pneumatic tube system. In addition, like with Paris’ extensive system, there were local tube stations in many neighborhoods into which you placed your cylinder. That cylinder could carry messages of course, but it could also carry small physical items as well, including food and even, according to some recorded cases, proposals plus engagement rings. Kind of like a primitive Amazon Prime operating atop of a steampunk Internet system that could deliver physical items!
Amazingly, New York itself built a pneumatic tube system in the 1890s, the map for which you can see here. Apparently, the tubes could move at 25 to 35mph, and carried not just letters but even, it is rumored, sandwiches from a particularly popular shop.
Another bizarre fact is that municipal buildings on Roosevelt Island (that big island under the 59th Street Bridge in the East River) have a pneumatic waste disposal system that is still in operation to the present day! It still puts out several tons of garbage every single day.
In other words, Alfred Ely Beach’s idea to move people and even larger things via a gigantic pneumatic tube system wasn’t as crazy as it sounded, and really just represented a vast upscaling of the pneumatic tube systems already prevalent in Europe, and it predated Elon Musk’s idea by over a century! One wonders, however, if it weren’t for Boss Tweed, might history have proceeded differently so that we’d have a vast metropolitan pneumatic people-moving system in New York City? Perhaps it would have delayed the building of the New York City subways by a few decades. Like the short-lived Blimp mast that was the original intent for the top of the Empire State Building, had Beach’s tube system somehow made it, New York could have been very different, a sort of Steampunk paradise.
Imagine disembarking from a blimp at the top of the Empire State Building and then proceeding down into the basement were you took a pneumatic tube home to your neighborhood!