Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1474:
BEACH'S SECRET SUBWAY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1474.

Today, 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.

Alfred Ely BeachAlfred Ely Beach was upper-crust. He was educated at Yale and given management of the New York Sun newspaper by his father in 1848. He was only 22 when he took over the Sun's offices in the Wall Street area. By then, Manhattan was just becoming a high-population-density nightmare. But Beach was a young man with ideas. Already, two years before, he'd bought the one-year-old Scientific American magazine. He also opened a major patent agency that would deal with clients like Morse, Edison, Bell, and Ericcson.

All the while, Beach watched Manhattan's streets growing hopelessly dirty and dangerous as four or five horse-drawn omnibuses rattled by each minute. He turned his attention to urban rail service. The British had just built a small experimental subway line in London, but it'd be another thirty years before regular subway service was finally established in America.

In 1866, Beach petitioned the City for something called a postal dispatch charter. That was actually a smokescreen -- a way to get authorization to build a subway system without letting the city of New York know what he was doing. He meant to start with a small 300-foot demonstration line under Broadway. He had to keep it secret from the corrupt Boss Tweed (of Tammany Hall infamy) because he knew Tweed would extort extra money before he'd let him dig.

To cut the tunnel, Beach improved on Marc Brunel's hydraulic shield design. (Later, the English turned around and used Beach's design in their tunneling.) Brunel had begun the first tunnel under the Thames River in London, and his son Isambard finished it. Like Brunel, Beach put his own son in charge of cutting their nine-foot-diameter hole. Father and son worked in secret at night, trucking dirt off in wagons with muffled wheels.

The finished system had a single pneumatically-driven car that shuttled people between two sumptuous stations with paintings, frescoes, and fine furniture. It cost Beach $350,000.

When the subway opened, Boss Tweed was first flabbergasted, then enraged. Tweed managed to close Beach down within a year, but, not long after that, he fell victim to the great political cartoonist, Thomas Nast. He was indicted for graft, and Beach's charter was reinstated. But then a stock-market collapse put Beach out of business for good. His subway was sealed up and forgotten.

Then, in 1912, a remarkable event: Workers digging an extension of the BMT subway line suddenly broke through into the old tunnel. It could've been King Tut's tomb with all that sealed-up elegance -- the old rail car, the décor, and Beach's hydraulic shield.

Today Beach's tube is a part of the BMT line. Of course, his legacy is much larger than a fragment of the BMT. He pioneered 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 technology has ever been established without dreamers like Alfred Ely Beach pointing the way.

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 is a greatly revised version of Episode 83.




Old magazine illustration of Beach's subway



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.