Alfred Ely Beach was born on September 1, 1826 in Springfield, Massachusetts. During his lifetime, he became a prominent figure in the world of invention not only because of his numerous patents and technological advances but also for his involvement in establishing the popular periodical Scientific American, a magazine he purchased with a colleague as a young man in 1846.
Beach learned a great deal about the publishing business from his father, Moses Beach, while growing up in New York City. His father owned the New York Sun newspaper. When he was 20 years old, young Beach joined with Orson Munn and Salem Wales to organize Munn & Co., which bought Scientific American. At the time, it was a small publication about science, poetry, religion, and morality.
Later, the magazine grew to become a very high-quality, respected journal, and it even endeavored to secure patents for U.S. inventors. Some say the magazine’s prominence was partially responsible for a large jump in the number of American patents applied for between 1846 and 1886 – from 600 to 20,000 in those forty years. The magazine still remains an active news source for scientific and technological advancement.
Beach was himself an avid inventor who secured several patents of his own. In 1847, he received a patent for an improvement he made to the typewriter. Ten years later, he received a patent for a typewriter that created embossed letters, seeing this as a means to educate and communicate with the blind.
By 1849, Beach had recognized a major problem that would change his life. The streets of New York City were loud and over-congested; every night it took him nearly an hour to get home. He believed that either an elevated railway or a subway beneath the streets was necessary for the bustling city. He settled on an idea for a subway, thinking it would be less noisy and less dangerous.
In 1866, Beach began experiments in pneumatic power, though he was not the first to delve into this technology. He had been granted a patent the previous year on a design for a pneumatic transit system for mail and passengers that included a design for pneumatic tubes. These vacuum-type tubes are still in use in some buildings and in the drive-through tellers at banks.
In 1867, Beach attended the American Institute Fair in New York, where he exhibited a 100-foot wooden tube in which a 10-passenger car was driven back and forth by a powerful, 100-horsepower fan. The idea was met with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm, and Beach continued to work on it.
He actually dug an 8-foot bore tunnel 300 feet under Broadway, one of New York’s main thoroughfares. But he had to do so in secret. At the time, he had to contend with the crooked politics of Tammany Hall and its leader, William "Boss" Tweed, whom he knew would extort many thousands of dollars from such a project. In order to avoid any scenarios involving extortion, Beach put up $350,000 of his own money to bankroll the project, thinking that once the public saw the completed work, the politicians would not dare to stop him. He was wrong. Although the demonstration was a success, adoption was blocked by politics and by money in the end.
Beach closed his secret subway in 1873 just three years after its start. It was forgotten until 1912, when construction workers building the new Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Broadway line broke through the wall of his station and found much of it intact.
Beach died on January 1, 1896 in New York, New York. Today, New York’s “City Hall” Station on the N and R lines contains part of the original Beach tube, and displays a plaque honoring his achievements. The New York City Subway opened in 1904, and although it was not the “Beach Pneumatic Transit System”, it is a part of his legacy.