A Series of Tubes

Albert_Robida_-_The_Twentieth_Century_-_Pneumatic_Tube_Train Jennifer Ouellette over at Cocktail Party Physics:

Imagine, if you will, a secret community dwelling beneath the streets of New York City, its inhabitants never allowed to travel to the surface or to interact in any way with the dreaded “Topsiders.” That’s the premise of an award-winning 1999 YA novel by Neal Shusterman called Downsiders, exploring what happens when a 14-year-old Downsider named Talon defies the prohibition and ends up falling in love with a Topsider named Lindsay. Together, they uncover the mysterious origins of the Downsiders: a forgotten inventor named Alfred Ely Beach who created the array of tunnels over a century ago.

This is an instance where science fiction bumps up briefly against science fact, because Shusterman’s inspiration for his subterranean world is based on an actual person. Alfred Ely Beach is best known for his invention of New York City’s first concept for a subway: the Beach Pneumatic Transit, which would move people rapidly from one place to another in “cars” propelled along long tubes by compressed air. Beach was also the publisher of Scientific American back in 1845, when he purchased it (at the ripe old age of 20) with a fellow investor, so it seems a fitting topic for my inaugural post on that magazine’s fledgling blog network. ( According to Wikipedia, inventor Rufus Porter actually founded the magazine, but sold it to Beach after a mere 10 months.)

Tunnels and pneumatic transportation systems are a staple of classic science fiction, starting with Jules Verne ’s Paris in the 20th Century (1863), in which the author envisions tube trains stretching across the ocean. In 1882, Albert Robida described not only tube trains, but pneumatic postal delivery systems in his novel, The Twentieth Century . Those authors were quite prescient: versions of such systems were actually built, and some still exist today.