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 "Sub-Rosa Subway").
        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 ( Alfred, Scientific 18).
        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 ( Beach, New 7).
        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 71).
        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; Alfred, Official).
        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, New 7).
        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 ( Daley 73-74).
         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 (Daley 75).
        The foreman of the digging crew was Alfred Beach's twenty-one year old son, Fred ( Daley 76), 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, Official 3).
        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, Official 3).
        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, Official 3).
        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…"( American  ,Act I).  The Sun (founded and still operated by Beach's family) and the Scientific American (edited by Beach) were, of course, laudatory ( Alfred, 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, Official 4).
        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 5; American).
        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 (AmericanAlfred, Official 6).

   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 of  Joseph Brennan of Columbia University, in New York City.


Works Cited

   "Alfred Ely Beach".  The Official Klaatu Home Page. Online. WorldWide Web. 25
                Oct.1996.  Available;

   "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
                Sons, 1929.
    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;

 Return 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 'n' Whistles.

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