Lost Masterpieces

Dr. Rufus Henry Gilbert’s Plan for an NYC Transit System Powered By Air

In the 1870s, long before Elon Musk, Dr. Rufus Henry Gilbert originated a plan for a New York City public transportation based on an elevated pneumatic tube system.

In August 2013, Elon Musk announced an idea that has the potential to radically change how people move over long distances.

He challenged tech companies to develop the technology for a super high-speed, train-like conveyance called the Hyperloop that would rely largely on the power of air; pressurized pods would transport people and goods through depressurized tunnels to achieve speeds not possible in conventional trains.

As this vision slowly moves towards reality, the Hyperloop has tantalized frequent travelers with dreams of the next best thing to teleportation—traveling from New York City to D.C. in under 30 minutes. While this technology would be a game changer, Musk is by no means the first to propose it.

In fact, he was beat over a century and a half ago by a former Civil War surgeon named Dr. Rufus Henry Gilbert who came up with the idea for a public transportation system for New York City that would have established an elevated pneumatic tube system in place of the underground subway that New Yorkers love to hate today.

Gilbert may have seemed like an unlikely candidate to invent such an innovative solution for New York City’s transportation woes, but his idea was rooted in his original profession.

It all started before the Civil War when the doctor went on a tour of Europe following the death of his wife. There, a grieving Gilbert was gripped by the terrible conditions in the slums, and he became convinced that the overcrowded and dirty environment was to blame for the high rates of disease and death among the poor. If only they could escape the cramped conditions of the inner city and live out in the fresh air, he thought, all their health problems would be solved.

“He reasoned that fast and cheap public conveyances would allow the poor to flee their teeming, disease-infested neighborhoods, and live in the hinterlands, where they could enjoy clean air and water, and plentiful sunshine,” Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, co-authors of Never Built New York, wrote in a piece for The Gotham Center. “The pathways to good health were the tracks to suburbia.”

The Civil War interrupted Gilbert’s big plans, but after the North prevailed and his services as the medical director and superintendent of U.S. Army Hospitals were no longer needed, he set about making his vision come to life.

In the meantime, while the country was embroiled in violence, New York City was starting to think about creating a public transportation system to service the city. When the war finally ended, they decided it was time to get serious and come up with a plan.

Most of the proposals being fielded at the time were for more conventional-style public transportation systems, something of a choose your own combo of height (elevated, underground, or depressed) and mode of transportation (retro horse-drawn train, conventional steam-engine, or new-age electric model).

But Gilbert had a more radical idea. He wanted to take the pneumatic technology being used in other projects in the area (he was beat to the pneumatic “first” award by a slew of projects in Europe and a mini underground version in Lower Manhattan created by Alfred Ely Beach, which is an incredible story of its own) and combine it with the burgeoning idea of placing the train system in the skies of Manhattan.

His technological ideas were impressive and cutting-edge for his day—and even for our day—but he also conceived of a look for the system that was downright beautiful. Elaborate, Gothic metal arches would top the streets of New York, extending out of sleek columns secured to the sidewalk at regular intervals. Plenty of scrolls, flourishes, and metal detailing decorated each arch, and they were all capped by two large tubes that would serve as the conduit for passengers to get around the city.

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In addition to being attractive, his design for the pneumatic system had one other thing going for it, something that would have modern subway riders groaning with jealousy. He proposed that each station (one situated every mile) “will be provided with pneumatic elevators to raise passengers to and from the place of transit with perfect safety, thus obviating the necessity of going up and down stairs for transit.”  

Gilbert’s proposal was innovative enough to be awarded a patent in 1870, and the New York City authorities were impressed enough to give him the green light to pursue it.

In 1872, he received a charter from the government to proceed with his plan. The conditions of the charter were ambitious—he had three years to construct his pneumatic tubes from Tribeca to the Harlem River along Sixth Avenue—and they came with a catch: He had to raise all the money himself.

But it was still a promising development in an era when an innovative Manhattan transit system was still a top-priority dream in the city’s eye.

The next year, Wall Street collapsed and Gilbert’s plan for a pneumatic train died with it.

Gilbert wasn’t the only one to have an ambitious transit plan sputter out in the face of the incredible challenge of constructing a comprehensive New York service (not to mention an investment class that was suddenly absent).

An article in Scientific American in 1872, the year before the financial collapse, put it this way: “Everybody in New York wants rapid transit, but, strange to say, the moment that anybody sets to work with a definite plan for its realization, they are vigorously opposed and the work prevented.”

The financial disaster of 1873 wasn’t the last of Gilbert or his transportation schemes. He continued to evolve his plan and eventually, in 1878, a small-scale version of it was constructed.

But by this time, he had reverted to the more conventional idea of constructing an elevated system that employed a train run by a steam-powered engine. His version would set the stage for the first above-ground subway system in Manhattan (a couple decades later, starting in 1904, this system would begin moving below ground).

But with the end of Gilbert’s more ambitious pneumatic project came the beginning of the end of the inventor himself. He was quickly ousted from his company after the first stretch of the above-ground railroad was built, and his already fragile health rapidly declined.

On July 11, 1885, the day after his death, a headline for the surgeon-cum-inventor’s obituary in The New York Times read, “Death of Dr. Rufus H. Gilbert: He Breathes His Last Unattended By Relatives or Friends.”

By that time, he had been stripped of his financial interests in his former transit company and he died a “confirmed invalid” in his last years “owing to incessant application to hard work during his earlier years and exposure during the war as an army surgeon.”

It’s a sad end to the life of a man who once had super-sized dreams for the most influential city in the world. But his ideas did not perish with him. This month, an exhibition opens at the Queens Museum to highlight the incredible plans for New York City that were never built; Gilbert’s pneumatic subway system features prominently among them.

And then, of course, there’s the renewed talk of the Hyperloop—still a pie-in-the-sky transportation idea that has the potential to change the world as we know it. Musk may be spearheading the developments of the modern-day system, but the ideas are firmly rooted in Gilbert’s vision.