Ah, the “hyperloop.” Elon Musk, whose track record as a technological visionary is unimpeachable, has released details of his plan for a futuristic system of transport. The basic idea is to use air pressure to shoot people-carrying pods through tubes at speeds of up to 760 miles per hour.
With all due respect to Mr. Musk, the idea isn’t new. This has been pointed out by some commentators, who have noted that in 1972 Rand Corporation researcher R. M. Salter released a proposal to ferry passengers from New York to Los Angles in a mere 21 minutes, or 14 minutes less than the hyperloop would take to send them from Los Angeles to San Francisco. But at its heart, Musk’s project is even more old school: It owes most of its inspiration to ideas that have been around for two hundred years.
In 1812, a British inventor named George Medhurst proposed “a plan for the rapid conveyance of goods and passengers … by the power and velocity of air.” The heart of Medhurst’s system was a pneumatic tube, and while the far-out plan went nowhere, subsequent generations of inventors and visionaries eagerly embraced it, experimenting with so-called pneumatic railways -- or “atmospheric railways” -- that promised to carry passengers in carriages shot through airtight tubes.
British entrepreneurs built a few protoypes in the first half of the 19th century, but the challenges of maintaining an airtight seal proved difficult to surmount. In the U.S., the cause was taken up by Alfred Ely Beach, a polymath inventor and entrepreneur best known for publishing Scientific American magazine for many years.
In the 1860s, Beach turned his attention to the idea of building a pneumatic railway to shuttle passengers in New York City. He eventually proposed a number of variations on the idea, including both an elevated railway, the design of which looks eerily similar to Musk’s proposal, and a subterranean railway, or subway. In 1868, Beach said the technology promised to send passengers at a staggering 100 miles per hour, or as he put it, “four times the average speed of many of our best railroads.”
Beach actually built a prototype of the pneumatic railway in 1867 at the American Institute Fair in New York, and visitors took short rides on the 107-foot stretch of above-ground tube. Emboldened, Beach went on to secure a corporate charter to build a pneumatic railroad beneath the city's streets. The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company’s logo featured Aeolus, god of the winds, blowing a train along the tracks. Late in 1868, Beach began secret construction on his railway 20-plus feet below Broadway. Crowds gathered to watch earth excavated from the basement of a department store that Beach had commandeered, but the actual construction was off limits to both the press and the public at large.
In 1870, Beach unveiled his creation to the public, inviting visitors to take a ride. The curious entered the basement of a building at the corner of Broadway and Warren Street to find a lavish subway station complete with chandeliers, a fountain filled with goldfish, and a grand piano. A cylindrical car at the head of a tube was similarly luxurious, fitted with zircon lamps, fancy woodwork and plush seats for 20. A powerful 20-ton blower in an adjacent room supplied the necessary pneumatic force to push and pull the car the length of the tube, which ran from Warren to Murray Streets. “The whole arrangement,” promised Beach’s Scientific American, “is as cozy and comfortable as the front basement dining room of a first-class city residence.”
For the visitors who paid 25 cents for the exceedingly smooth ride, Beach’s atmospheric railway seemed as futuristic as Musk’s proposal does today, even if its top speed of 10 miles per hour fell short of the original promise. Within weeks, boosters were talking about expanding the system throughout New York City. Beach had a powerful backer in this endeavor: William “Boss” Tweed, the famously corrupt legislator who could sweep aside potential opposition.
Sadly for Beach, Tweed was charged with embezzlement in 1872, and the project faltered. Beach managed to revive it briefly by falsely claiming that Tweed had opposed the project. A year later, the panic of 1873 destroyed whatever interest remained in the project, and New York City’s first subway -– and only pneumatic railroad –- was forgotten, until visionaries such as Salter revived the idea in the 1960s.
But Musk should take heart. Even if he fails to build his hyperloop, it’s likely to push us forward in other ways. Beach’s pneumatic railway generated plenty of spinoff technologies, from elaborate systems of pneumatic tubes used to deliver mail in New York City to the “iron moles” used ever since to dig huge subterranean tunnels. Failure often pays many unforeseen dividends. It’s something to remember if Musk joins Alfred Beach in the long line of pneumatic visionaries whose projects proved nothing more than a lot of hot air.
(Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)