This Week in History: February 26 – March 4


This week in history: A pneumatic subway, a “magical” eclipse, and a flash flood. Read more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

February 26th, 1870– Pneumatic Subway in New York City is debuted

The New York subway is one of the largest in the world and certainly one of the busiest. It’s not the oldest (predated by London’s tube) but did you know that a pneumatic “subway” spanning 300″ under Broadway and Warren streets that was a contemporary of the Tube?

Image of Beach Pneumatic Plan
Scientific American from March 5, 1870

In 1870, Alfred Ely Beach premiered his “Beach Pneumatic Transit” under the New York City streets. He first introduced it in 1867 at the American Institute Fair. Originally, his idea was to use pneumatic tubes for mail (an idea which he patented in 1865), but expanded to a people-mover to improve travel through crowded metropolises. The test at the fair was successful enough to have the New York Times write that the invention was “the most novel and attractive feature of the exhibition.” Beach also caught the

eye of Boss Tweed; this allowed him to pass a bill to construct a system of pneumatic tubes (for mail… not people.) Regardless of what the bill allowed, Beach and his team constructed a 300″ long, 10″ diameter tube with two massive fans on either end.

Image of Beach Pneumatic Railway
Tunnel entrance of the Beach Pneumatic Railway

The experiment was a success and certainly a novelty for the city at the time. Sadly, when time to request funds for expansion came, Boss Tweed petitioned for an elevated subway and eventually won. The tube was closed up in 1873 and found a number of times after by contractors and curiosity seekers. It has been destroyed in years since to create new subterranean structures.

Learn more about change in the 19th century with The Industrial Revolution

February 29th, 1504– Christopher Columbus foils mutiny with eclipse prediction

Christopher Columbus, famed for his 1492 trip to what would become America, set sail for another course in the early 1500’s. In 1503, Columbus found himself stranded in Jamaica. Searching for food, Columbus and crew were welcomed by the indigenous people and supplied with provisions. Sadly, Columbus’s crew started cheating and stealing from the natives.

“…with great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf…”

The indigenous people stopped offering food and Columbus and crew were on the edge of starvation. To save himself and his men, Columbus came up with a plan. Within an almanac on board, he noticed the time of an upcoming eclipse. Using this to his advantage, Columbus told the leader of the natives that their god was angry at them because of their treatment of him and his men. The son of Columbus, Ferdinand, wrote that the people: “with great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them …”¹ Columbus retreated to his cabin to “pray,” timing the eclipse, and returned to “forgive” the native peoples 48 minutes later, just before the moon reappeared.

Learn more about Christopher Columbus’s travels and close calls with History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration

March 3rd, 1998– Flash Flood in Pakistan

Flash floods are notoriously tricky to avoid. On March 3-4, 1998 in Balochistan, Pakistan, massive flash floods claimed the lives of at least 300 persons; 1,500 were missing and presumed dead, and some 25,000 were left homeless.

Image of Balochistan Flood
Image of a later flood in Balochistan, 8/2016

“The devastation has been immense,” news source ACT-CWS Pakistan reported. In total, the flood destroyed 3,700 houses, damaged 8,000 and 25,000 were left homeless. This flood in Pakistan’s largest but least populated province into focus. The infestructure was minimal at best and easily washed away with the waters.

Learn more about the power and fury of flash floods with The Science of Extreme Weather
Attribution and citations:
¹William Least Heat Moon (2002). Columbus in the Americas. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 175. ISBN 978-0-471-21189-1. Retrieved 2016-02-28.