Day 565: Ninety Minutes From New York To Paris?

originally published July 18, 2013

There was a time when I pined about the lack of flying cars in this so-called future we live in, to the point where even my dogs learned to roll their eyes when I’d bring it up. Well Rufus, I’ll have you know there was more to my childhood daydreams of sci-fi transportation than a Buick with wings. And no, I’m not talking about the Millennium Falcon – we all know that isn’t the future. It says so at the start of the movie: that shit is from a long time ago.

No, I’m talking about the pneumatic tube.

That’s right, those snazzy plastic freeways that transport cash drops from Costco tills to some magic fairy-land where I can only assume it rains money. Or at least it rains plastic canisters filled with money, which might actually cause a lot of property damage. At least you’d have no problem affording the repairs.

But I’m not the first to envision those tubes as a viable mode of transportation. In fact, the word ‘viable’ never entered into it for me. But for some people, this was seen as the way of the future.

Scottish inventor William Murdoch was the first to come up with the pneumatic capsule idea, back in 1836. This became the pinnacle of high-tech during the Victorian age, when people would use them to send messages or small packages (maybe even docile kittens) from telegraph offices to nearby buildings. Back when NASA ran things out of Houston, they relied on these tubes for communication between teams in different rooms. And while NASA may have ditched the technology, it still shows up in more places than your local grocery store.

The Denver airport is teeming with tubes, sending airline tickets and collecting parking tolls. A huge tube network was used by the postal service in Paris until 1984, when fax machines made them nearly obsolete (though faxes are still not useful for transporting kittens). Nuclear scientists use tubes to send core samples for testing – there’s really no faster way to send them, and some of those isotopes have tiny half-lives so speed is important. On the weird edge of the tube spectrum, a McDonalds in Edina, Minnesota used pneumatic tubes to send food from their strip-mall-based kitchen to cars waiting in the parking lot. Nothing like a quality gimmick to hock mediocre food-like stuff.

The idea to use these tubes to propel humans probably originated about ten to fifteen seconds after William Murdoch came up with the technology. In 1863, the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company built a giant-size version, designed to move large parcels around  the city. Apparently they christened the network by packing the Duke of Buckingham into a container along with some of the company’s higher-ups, then blasted them from Holborn Station to Euston, about a five-minute voyage.

The ride must not have been that pleasant, because the London tube (well, that London tube) never became known as a means of transportation. By 1874 the entire system was abandoned, mostly because the large containers would constantly get jammed in the tubes. The tunnels have all been dismantled from London’s innards, but two of the container cars survived, now sitting in museums where they belong.

In 1869, construction began on the first underground transit system beneath the streets of New York. The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company had plans to use tubes technology to connect every corner of Manhattan. In less than two months, Alfred Ely Beach (and presumably his construction crew) finished the first phase: a tube line from Warren Street to Murray Street under Broadway, a sprawling 312 feet long. Okay, it was a small start, but it was the start of something big.

Or it would have been. William “Boss” Tweed (whose lechery and borderline evil was previously described on this site) had big plans for an elevated train system, and he used his considerable political influence to shut down the pneumatic dream of Alfred Beach. The tunnel was sealed, then eventually demolished to make way for the City Hall Station. All that remains of Beach’s attempt to modernize New York is a commemorative plaque near where his dream was almost realized.

An engineer named Robert Salter became an advocate for high-speed transport in the 1970’s, proposing a vactrain system running on steel wheels through the Northeast Megalopolis, meaning the densely-populated area between Boston and Washington DC. A vactrain is a vacuum-powered train, using the power of air pressure mixed with a dollop of gravity to launch its trains at high speeds. A nine-station route was plotted but never constructed.

This was around the time Japan began construction on its bullet-train system, and maglev technology – trains riding on magnetic levitation rather than wheels – was the talk of the scientific town. Salter pushed the environmental advantages of the vactrain system, pointing out how much kinder this network would be to the planet than the fossil-fuel-burning alternatives. Maybe it was because he predated the environmental movement, or maybe because no one wanted to pony up the start-up costs, but Salter’s plan never came close to materializing.

Frank P. Davidson, one of the founders of the sub-English-Channel tunnel, proposed a floating tube, anchored by chains to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Another notion came from Dr. James Powell, one of the inventors of modern maglev technology. He thought we should use a vactrain to launch astronauts into space. And instead of digging through Earth, why not cut costs and run the launch tunnel through the blocks of ice in the Antarctic?

I love science.

This brings us to the still-theoretical applications of the technology today. ETT, or Evacuated Tube Technologies looks at the ~200 MPH speeds of high-speed rail in the Far East and scientifically scoffs. A properly-constructed vacuum-powered train should be able to achieve speeds upward of 4000-5000 MPH, or 5-6 times the speed of sound. That’s right, you could commute from Los Angeles to New York in less time than it takes me to ride the bus from my home in west Edmonton to my job downtown.

So long as the acceleration and deceleration portions of the trip are drawn out to be wholly tolerable, at maximum speed passengers would still only be experiencing 1G of force. Of course the big down-side is that the cost to build this network would bankrupt every supervillain in movie history, and even then we’d need to take a lot of bottles to the depot to set this thing up cross-continent.

But people are working on it. I’d still rather pilot my own flying car, but hey, if this thing actually does get built within my lifetime, I’ll buy a ticket.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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