Alfred Beach-Scientific American
'What is it?,' asked
Beach. Young Tom Edison was at Beach's desk again. Inventors often
came to see this kind man, Alfred Ely Beach (Daley
71-72). Beach was an inventor himself. A meticulous,
caring and best of all, monetarily successful man, he was never in a hurry,
yet never still (Alfred, Scientific 18).
In Fact, this eccentric, well-read, product of the nineteenth century seems
like a character from a Jules Verne novel. His chief exploit
was immortalized in a rock song (Klaatu
Alfred Beach was born on
Septeptember 1, 1826 in Springfield, Massachusetts, but his history is
more closely tied to New York City. His father, Moses Beach, was
a prominent citizen of that city where he operated a newspaper, The Sun
( Alfred, Scientific 18). Young
Alfred went to work for his father and learned much about the publishing
business. Enough was learned, in fact, that in 1846, along with a
schoolmate, Alfred purchased the new periodical, Scientific American (
At this time Scientific
American was a small publication, fourteen issues old, and included science,
poetry, religion and morality in its pages ( Alfred,
Scientific 18). In the first issue of Scientific American published
by Munn and Company, in which Alfred Beach was a partner, the new owner
announced that the magazine would secure patents for U.S. inventors.
To this end, Alfred Beach spent time talking to inventors and learning
about their inventions. He also personally traveled to the United
States' Patent Office in Washington D.C., where he soon became very well
known (Alfred, Scientific 18).
Although, as a representative
for inventors, Alfred's personal effectiveness has been difficult to gauge,
the effectiveness of this idea can easily be demonstrated by citing some
statistics. In 1846 the U.S. Patent Office reviewed requests for
600 patents. By 1886, that number had increased to 20,000 annually ( Alfred,
Scientific 18). Some of these new patents were applied for by
Alfred Beach himself and many others were inspired by his publication.
Alfred did not neglect
to apply for patents in his own name, and these are well-documented.
In 1847, Beach was granted a patent on an improvement he made to
the typewriter ( Johnson 80). In 1853, he
made significant changes to this machine and displayed it at New York's
Crysta1 Palace Exhibition. He won a Gold Medal for this new
typewriter that was the first expressly designed for use by the blind (
This typewriter worked by
using a set of male and female dies, striking a strip of paper simultaneously
from both sides to create an embossed character ( Daley
71). Beach was a compassionate man and empathized with those less
fortunate than himself. He perceived the blind as being imprisoned
in darkness and saw his typewriter as a means to educate and communicate
with the sightless ( Daley 70).
Alfred Beach received a
patent for this typewriter in 1857, four years after he had displayed it
(Johnson 80). This delay was probably due,
in part, to Alfred's attitude toward success. Like many inventors, Beach
was a problem-solver. Patient and earnest in quests to overcome difficulties,
but quickly tiring of pursuits once he had overcome their challenges.
Once an invention was finished, his interest lay elsewhere ( Daley
As early as 1849, a different
problem had been vexing him. From his office, above City Hall, he heard
the over-congested street noise below. Each night he traveled for nearly
an hour in order to get home. There seemed to be two solutions: an
elevated railway or a subway beneath the streets. Beach reasoned
that an El was unsightly, noisy and prohibitively dangerous. New York City
needed a subway ( Daley 72-73;
Beach was considering various
means of transport. London had built a subway, but complaints, most regarding
the steam engines used, were numerous. His first idea to get to the
planning stage was a system where a street was to be built below ground.
Two sets of tracks would be built, on which horse-drawn streetcars would
move. At every corner, there would be an entry tunnel from above
and passengers would be picked up and dropped off at these ( Daley
73). The unpredictability, skittishness, expense and maintenance
of horses probably contributed to the abandonment of this idea. Beach
had other ideas that seemed better.
He received a patent for
a cable traction railway system in 1864, but this was probably never used
( Johnson 80). In 1866, Beach began experiments
in pneumatic power; air pressure (Daley 73).
His patent of 1865 specified a pneumatic transit system for mail and passengers
( Johnson 80). These pneumatic tubes are still
in use in some buildings and in the drive-through tellers at banks where
materials are transported in a small container moving through a tunnel
via air-power, but the system inspired a grander idea to Beach ( Beach,
At the 1867 American Institute
Fair, in New York City, Beach built a plywood tube that ran the length
of the building in which the exhibition was held. In this tube was
a set of tracks, upon which was a carriage with room for ten passengers.
The car was driven by a huge fan at either side of the tube, propelling
it with clean, quiet air pressure. It did not use the soot-producing,
suffocatingly humid, steam engines that London used. The exhibit
was a success and hundreds of people rode in the tube, often to the sound
of enthusiastic applause ( Daley 74).
Beach was encouraged.
He felt this was the prototype for his subway. Besides producing
soot and breathing hazardous humidity, steam engines were too messy and
boilers exploded much too often. Since practical gasoline or electric
engines did not exist at this time and a pneumatic system had been proven,
a pneumatic provided the solution to New York City's transit problems (
The next technological
difficulty to overcome was building a tunnel. In 1868, the Beach Tunneling
Shield was introduced by Alfred for this purpose. The tunneling shield
was a large cylinder. Tunneling shields were used before, on the
London subway, but the cylindrical shape was an improvement which made
the process even safer. The front edge was sharp and the rear edge
had a thin iron hood. The shield was driven through the earth by
hydraulic jacks. After the shield was driven forward, dirt was removed
and the tunnel strengthened by workers under the hood ( Beach,
Encycl. 386). In this manner, the risk of cave-ins was diminished
because all bracing of the tunnel was done from inside the shield.
It seemed all was ready
to build a subway now. The technological challenges could be met, but could
the political challenges be met? In 1868, New York City was run by
the infamous Tammany Hall organization and under one of its strongest leaders,
Boss Tweed ( Alfred, Official 2).
Tammany Hall was a corrupt organization operated by means of bribes, threats
and violence Nothing was done without paying tribute to the political leaders
in charge. Boss Tweed received. profits from the Erie Railroad as
well as all the streetcar franchises in the city ( Alfred,
Official 2; Daley 68).
Beach had lived in New York
long enough to have seen the ruin of those who opposed Tammany Hall.
Yet he refused to pay blackmail, but he also believed in self-preservation.
What was left? He decided to build a subway in secret, without letting
anyone official know of his plans. In 1868, Beach received a charter
from Tammany and the City Council to build a pneumatic system for mail
delivery, but did not specify the size of the tube to be used ( Daley
75). It was a minor detail, overlooked by the organization, but it
was a loophole.
Beach had had associates
do soundings under the city, which showed sand under Broadway at
Murray Street, so the former, Devlin's Clothing Store at that location
was rented and one night in 1868 the first load of dirt was dragged
across the floor and dumped in the far corner. The tunnel had begun
The foreman of the digging
crew was Alfred Beach's twenty-one year old son, Fred ( Daley
who would later gain fame and fortune for himself as future editor of Scientific
American, encyclopedia publisher and entrepreneur ( Johnson
81). On the digging crew, a level head and dependability were important
qualities. As the work proceeded into the earth, claustrophobia and nerves
caused many workers to abandon the project. The tunnel was dark,
the work lit only by lantern, and the street-sounds above were very loud
because they echoed ( Daley 76).
Despite the attrition of
workers, the efforts of the crew proceeded smoothly for a time. Then, one
night, they struck stone where none was expected. The workers could
not circumvent the obstacle. The crew had dug up to a stone wall twenty
feet below Broadway. Fred Beach sought the opinion and advice of
his father ( Daley 76).
When he arrived, Alfred
deduced that the obstacle was the foundation of an old fort. But
what to do about it. If the foundation were damaged, would the street
collapse? The workers
would be safe in the tunneling shield, but if the tunnel were exposed,
the clandestine operation would be at an end. 'Remove it, stone by
stone!" decided Alfred During the next few days, the street above
was watched carefully for signs of sagging. None were observed and
progress on the tunnel proceeded smoothly ( Alfred,
Workers hauled away dirt
in wagons with muffled wheels, replacing them with loads of bricks
for the tunnel walls ( Alfred, Official
3). After fifty-eight nights, the digging was completed, but it took
most of two years and $350,000 of Alfred Beach's own money to complete
the Beach Pneumatic Subway, which was revealed to the public on February
26, 1870 ( Daley 7; Alfred,
The extra time and expenses
were used to make the tunnel a showplace. Beach knew he required
tremendous public support, first to fight Tammany Hall, and second, to
support the venture after political obstacles had been overcome.
In order to achieve this end, Beach had a waiting room built that was 120
feet in length; more than one-third the length of the tunnel itself. This
lobby was lit with zircon lamps and decorated with frescoes, fine paintings,
a grand piano and a goldfish fountain (Alfred,
A single, twenty-two seat,
upholstered car was fitted into the nine-foot tunnel. The car was
propelled by a huge, steam-driven fan named the Roots Patent Force Blast
Blower, but nicknamed by workers "The Western Tornado". Air
was drawn from a valve above the fan and blown into the tunnel, where the
car was propelled at speeds up to ten miles an hour. When the car reached
Warren Street, the end of the tunnel, it tripped a wire, the fan reversed,
and the car was sucked back to its point of origin ( Alfred,
Official 34; Daley 67).
When news of the secret
subway was released to the public, reviews were fabulous. The New
York Herald raved "Fashionable Reception Held In The Bowels Of The Earth"
and The Times applauded the "General appearance of taste and comfort…"(
,Act I). The Sun (founded and still operated by Beach's family) and
the Scientific American (edited by Beach) were, of course, laudatory (
Official 4). The general public was no less impressed and paid
twenty-five cents each to ride or just to see the tunnel. Beach himself
led dignitaries through the tunnel and told them of his plans for improving
it ( Daley 80, 67).
City politicians were not
so pleased with the subway. Beach had been granted a charter to construct
a mail tube. He had defied them. There was talk of destroying
the tunnel and throwing Beach in jail, but Beach remained firm in his resolution
that the city needed a subway( Daley 68).
He went before the State Legislature at Albany ( Daley
68), where he proposed The Beach Transit Bill, calling for a $5 million
expenditure, all to be privately raised. All work was to be done
underground with little or no disruption to surface traffic ( Alfred,
Official 4). The bill was passed by the state legislature
in January 1871 ( Daley 68). The vote was 22-5
in the Senate and 102-11
in the State Assembly. However, Boss Tweed countered Beach with
a transit bill of his own. Tweed's Viaduct Plan called for elevated
train lines to be mounted on forty-foot high stone arches. It required
$80 million, all to come from public funds. Tweed's Viaduct Plan
also passed the state legislature ( Afred,
Both bills went before Governor
John T. Hoffinan for his signature. The governor was a Tammany man
and vetoed the Beach bill while signing the Tweed bill. Beach tried
to get enough votes in the legislature to override the veto, but came up
one vote short. In November 1872, Hoffinan was voted out of
office. In 1873, the Beach Transit Bill finally passed and was signed
by the new governor ( Alfred, Official
4), John Adams Dix (New York).
But, by this time, Beach
was an exhausted man. The cost of the bill had doubled, his personal
fortune had been spent, he had alienated financial backers and the public
support for the project had waned and vanished because the subway would
not be useful until expanded. Beach attempted to use his tunnel.
The lobby was rented out and converted, first into a shooting gallery and
then it was used as a storage vault, but finally the tunnel was sealed
up and forgotten for many years (Alfred,Official
In February 1912, a construction
crew digging a new subway under Broadway broke through the wall of Alfred
Beach's tunnel. "What is it?" they probably asked. Alfred's tunnel
was demolished to make way for the new subway and the plan of William
Barclay Parsons (American; Alfred,
This story is based on legend and stories related in volumes
most likely reliant on statements originally put forth in Scientific
American or other Beach-influenced publications. This is the
story which I knew and the story undoubtedly known by John Woloschuk, formerly
of Klaatu (whose song started
all this). For a different version, I refer the reader to the website
Brennan of Columbia University, in New York City.
"Alfred Ely Beach".
The Official Klaatu Home Page. Online. WorldWide Web. 25
Oct.1996. Available; http://klaatu.org
"Alfred Ely Beach".
Scientific American 11 Jan. 1896; 18.
Beach, Alfred Ely. The
Encyclopedia Americana International Edition Vol.3. 1992.
Beach, Alfred Ely. The New
Encyclopedia Britannica: Micropedia Vol. 2. 1994.
Daley, Robert The World Beneath
The City. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1959.
Johnson, Allen Ed. Dictionary
of American Biography Vol.2. New York: Charles Scribner's
Klaatu 3:47 E.S.T. "Sub-Rosa
Subway" Daffodil; 9216-10054, 1976. By J. Woloschuk, D.
Tome; Magentalane Music.
"New York Offices." The Political
Graveyard. Online. WorldWideWeb. 20 Feb. 1999.
"New York Underground"
The American Experience. Video. WGBH Educational
Foundation, Boston. 1997. Transcript found on the Internet;
to the Richard LeBlanc Index
The song playing
is "A Routine Day". Written by John Woloschuk of Klaatu
(1978 Magentalane Music) and found at Kwest
Productions. Animation from Bells
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