18 April 2016

And This Man's Fancy Turned To (A) Spring

Some cyclists always seem to ride as if the wind is at their backs. 

It wouldn't surprise me if somebody tried to create a perpetual wind-at-your-back machine.  (Now, honestly, isn't that the only kind of perpetual motion you would actually want?)  If it could be done for a subway train, why not a bike? 

I am not making up the part about the subway train.  There are several predecessors to the current New York City subway system, which opened in 1904.  One of them was the Broadway Underground Pneumatic Railway, which operated from 1870 until 1873. 

It was a railway in the sense that it ran on rails. However, calling it a "subway system" would be a stretch, as it was only a block, or about 100 meters (300 feet long) and included only one station at each end.   But it attracted notice, in part for its novelty, but also because of who created it and how he went about constructing it.

Alfred Ely Beach, an inventor and editor of Scientific American, demonstrated an air-driven tube system at the American Institute Fair of 1867.  He really wanted to show that it would be viable as an underground transportation system and applied to the New York City government, under the rule of Tammany Hall for a permit to build a tunnel.  He was denied--at least for a train tunnel.  He did, however, receive a permit to build a pneumatic package delivery system--one of the first of its kind--consisting of two tunnels.  Then he had his permit changed so he could build one large tunnel in order to "simplify" the system.  Of course, you know the real purpose of that "simplification"!

While cited as an important early development in New York City's transit history, it's not clear that pneumatic tubes could have been practical for a full-scale underground rail system.  Beach's line never expanded beyond the block--from City Hall to the intersection of Broadway and Murray Streets--under which it ran.  Multiple-unit traction trains and electric locomotives were developed not long after Beach's experiment ended, so investors were no longer interested in pneumatic subterranean rail lines.

Reading about Beach's experiment got me to wondering about other ways of propelling trains--and bikes.  Hmm...a pneumatic pedi-train?  Or how about one with a coiled spring that's wound up?

If such a system were to be built, it might come from the garage of these folks:


N.B.: Beach Street in the Tribeca neighborhood of lower Manhattan is named for Alfred Ely Beach. Very few New Yorkers know that.


  1. I seem to remember reading an article a few years back about a proposal to build elevated covered bikeways. Basically they were oversized plastic hamster tunnels. The thought being that they would be safe from traffic below and always sheltered from the weather. But their best feature was that they would have forced air blown through them in the direction of travel. One would always have a 10 or 15 mph tailwind. I'm not sure what that would do to the ladies hairdos.

  2. Phillip--If we all have "bad hair days", is it still a "bad hair day"? ;-)

    I wonder what it would be like to have a permanent tailwind.