Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Pneumatic Transit System of Alfred Ely Beach

The Beach Pneumatic Transit began as a system for the transportation of letters and parcels through Manhattan.
Construction had began in 1869 after Alfred Ely Beach, the owner of Scientific American magazine, had received a franchise from the state of New York to build two tubes with a diameter of fifty-four inches to move mail along Broadway.
The system was based on the emergent technology of pneumatic transport which had been used in the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in Dublin from 1844 to 1854 and the Crystal Palace Atmospheric Railway which had operated throughout 1864.
Pneumatic transport involved the use of railways that run through tubes with the carriage itself forming a near air-tight seal with the walls of the tunnel.
A steam-powered fan than pushes or pulls the carriage along the rails using the partial vacuum created by the seal in the tunnel.
Construction was completed on Beach’s project in only fifty-eight days with the only delay coming from Beach applying for a new permit to build a single tunnel with a diameter of one hundred and eight inches to replace the two smaller tunnels that had originally been agreed upon. Beach explained that he could fit the two pipes necessary for his postal transit system within this single tunnel and that it would speed up the construction process.
The state had no objection to this and allowed this apparently small, but ultimately vital, change to the plans.
Invitations were issued to the great and good of New York to the opening of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company on February 26th 1870.
They were told to come to the offices of the company at 260 Broadway on the corner of Warren St. Many who received these invitations were perplexed at the instructions.
The corner of Warren and Broadway was home to a clothing store, Devlin and Co., and there had been no evidence of any works taking place there that could involve any sort of major engineering project. Some expected to find little more that a presentation of the plans for the system given the amount of time since construction had began and the lack of any apparent work being done.
Instead, they walked into a scene that none of them expected.
They descended into the basement of Devlin’s to find a 120 foot long reception room illuminated by gaslit chandeliers, fine art lining the walls of the room and tables of champagne and hors d’oeuvres laid out in front of them.
Beach himself greeted them and lead them across the room to the opening of the tunnel where the Beach Pneumatic Transit System would run. There they were confronted by the biggest surprise of all. It was something that no New Yorker had ever seen before.
A subway car.
Beach explained that his system had evolved from a postal delivery scheme to a passenger transit line. The larger tunnel could accomodate the two pipes needed for the proposed delivery system but was also, conveniently, just the right size for a subway car.
The officials from City Hall were furious for a couple of reasons.
Firstly they had invested huge amounts of money, both their own and the states, in the development of overground rail transit systems that were being developed.
Millions of dollars in contracts and kickbacks had been pushed through the Tammany Hall system of William ‘Boss’ Tweed, a corrupt figure who ran the government of New York City.
In addition to this it was seen a additionally embarrassing for the men of City Hall that this construction that threatened their fortunes and careers ran directly under City Hall itself.
Beach, fearing the authorities discovering the scope of his plans, had planned the tunneling process meticulously. He didn’t announce that he had begun construction to stop fictitious complaints about the effect on water and sewage supplies from those who opposed the scheme and he managed to dispose of tons of debris from the excavation and the elaborate construction of the tunnel and reception room without attracting attention.
All of this was done under one of the busiest streets in New York.
Beach had invented a special tunneling shield to allow for the speedy creation of the tunnel with the minimum of work required to move the resultant debris. The shield also allowed for the tunnel to curve to the left or right, a first in subterranean excavation.
The initial tunneling that Beach had done ran along the length of Broadway and was 321 feet long. Beach was confident though that he could quickly and easily extend his system throughout the island of Manhattan in a very short time.
All seemed well for Beach and the Pneumatic Transit System. It was proved to be a speedy, dependable and clean way for people to move around the city with a minimum of effort.
However this did not tally with the plans of ‘Boss’ Tweed and the many New York industrialists that had invested time and money in the development of other transit systems.
Beach’s efforts to expand his plans were repeatedly blocked by City Hall and in the New York Senate. Beach used his considerable fortune to keep the project running but needed outside investment to make it a workable reality.
This dried up as the years of opposition to the scheme stretched out and eventually a financial crisis in 1873 saw Beach lose all other investment and the company collapse.
The tunnel was hired out as a wine cellar and a shooting range and Beach’s interest in pneumatics waned with the development of electrical engineering.
In 1912 the City of New York declared that it would be building a subway station at City Hall. Excavation began and the workers stumbled upon a long forgotten project.
It was Beach’s tunnel.
The tunnel had been sealed for forty years and was entombed in dust but was in complete working order. The air inside was warm and dry as the tunnel had never leaked or caved in.
Sitting at the edge of the tunnel was Beach’s subway car, ready for it’s next journey...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Cook's Tale

‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer are a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims traveling from London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
The pilgrims pass their time on the journey by telling stories that, despite the pious nature of their adventure, are often bawdy and rely on strong vernacular language that would have shocked many readers at the time.
‘The Cook’s Tale’ is typical of many of Chaucer’s stories in the Tales with earthy language, content and characters but it is set apart by its very abrupt ending.
Chaucer allows the Cook to begin his story but it stops at what appears to be an odd moment.
In the General Prologue to the Tales we meet the Cook, he’s a lively character with a taste for ale and sporting a ‘mormal’ or lesion on his shin.
‘The Cook’s Tale’ is introduced by the innkeeper who links the tales together and he expands upon the character of the Cook claiming that he sells pies that are drained of gravy, are constantly reheated and sold for days on end and that his shop is infested with flies.
The Cook laughs off these accusations and threatens to tell a story about an innkeeper but instead begins the tale of Perkyn, an apprentice to a cook in London.

A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee
An apprentice once dwelt in our city
And of a craft of vitaillers was hee
And of a craft of food merchants was he

Perkyn is quickly taken by the temptations of London and is distracted from his work by drinking, dancing and women.

That he was cleped Perkyn Revelour
That he was called Perkyn Reveller
He was as ful of love and paramour
He was as full of love and womanizing
As is the hyve ful of hony sweete;
As is the hive full of honey sweet;
Wel was the wenche with hym myghte meete
Happy was the woman who with him might meet
At every bridale wolde he synge and hoppe;
At every wedding party he would sing and dance;
He loved bet the taverne than the shoppe.
He loved the tavern better than the shop.

His preference for the tavern to the shop does not go unnoticed and Perkyn is soon released by his master.

Therfore his maister yaf hym acquitance,
Therefore his master gave him his certificate,
And bad hym go, with sorwe and with meschance!
And ordered him to go, with sorrow and with bad luck!

So Perkyn moves in with a friend whose wife is a prostitute.

Unto a compeer of his owene sort,
Unto a companion of his own sort,
That lovede dys, and revel, and disport,
Who loved dicing, and revelling, and having fun,
And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
And had a wife that kept for the sake of appearances
A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance.
A shop, and screwed for her living.

The tale ends here, a sudden stop that confused many scribes although the critic Richard Embs makes a compelling argument for the tale being complete.
He contends that the Cook’s Tale is autobiographical and that if we imagine the other pilgrims hearing the story, seeing the scab on the shin of the Cook and believing it to be venereal in origin and being disgusted by the whole affair the tale has served its purpose.
In defence of this theory, Chaucer later gives the Cook an opportunity to expand on his tale or tell another.
Unfortunately by this time the Cook is too drunk and instead falls off his horse.
It seems likely then that Chaucer never wanted any more of this tale to be told.
This was not helpful to the scribes and copyists that put together the various editions of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and they developed some creative solutions to this apparent omission.
There are 83 known manuscripts of the Tales with 55 believed to have been complete at one time and the remaining 23 being so fragmentary that it is difficult to know if they were individually copied or were once part of a larger set.
No unarguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus on the order Chaucer wanted the Tales told in has been agreed upon.
Editors and copyists have used this confusion to their advantage when attempting to place The Cook’s Tale in their editions.
In the Hengwrt manuscript, probably the earliest attempt to organise the fragments of the Tales, the scribe made a note in the margin:

‘Of this cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore.’

25 manuscripts, including Harley 7334 and Corpus Christi 198, continued on from the Cook’s Tale with the 902 line romance ‘Gamelyn’, sometimes with a bridge such as the couplet in Royal 18.C.ii:

‘But here-off I will passe as now
And of yong Gamelyn I will tell yow’

Manuscripts without Gamelyn did the best they could.
Many accepted the Cook’s Tale as complete and moved on to the next pilgrim’s tale.
The creative scribe who completed the Rawlinson Poetry141 (fol 29a) edition placed a four line conclusion at the end of the Cook’s Tale to tidy things up:

‘And thus with horedom and bryberye
Togeder thei used till they honged hye.
For whoso evel byeth shal make a sory sale;
And thus I make an ende of my tale.’

The Bodley 686 manuscript took the most trouble to act upon the incomplete nature of the work, both in terms of content and moral teaching.
An extra forty-five lines were added to the end of the Tale along the same instructional lines as the Rawlinson edition above.
The prudish nature of the scribe responsible of these additions can also be seen in his transcription of the Tale itself, particularly in the actions of Perkyn’s friends wife.
In this edition she pleyed rather than swyved for her sustenance...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

On the Silver Globe

After his second film, ‘Diabel’ (1972), was banned in his native Poland, Andrzej Zulawski decided to relocate to France to continue his film-making career.
He went on to make ‘L’Important c’est d’aimer’ (1975) in France and enjoyed such critical success with this film that the Polish government felt it was embarrassing for an artist of such standing to be effectively exiled from his own country.
They invited him to return and gave him the freedom to work on any project he chose, without government interference.
Zulawski had long been interested in adapting a novel, ‘On the Silver Globe’ which was part of a trilogy of books written by his granduncle Jerzy Zulawski.
The story concerned a group of astronauts whose ship crashes on the dark side of the Moon.
After the crash only one adult survives as well as a group of children.
The children develop their own society based on shamanism and the worship of fire, they dub themselves ‘Selenites’ and the adult ‘The Old Man’ and both worship and revile him.
The Selenites find themselves in conflict with the Szerens, the Moons original inhabitants, while The Old Man removes himself from the group and goes to live in the mountains.
Here he records a video diary which he sends to Earth. A space researcher called Marek finds the diary and goes to the Moon. When he gets there he is greeted by the children as a messianic figure and the reincarnation of The Old Man who they believe will lead them to victory against the Szern.
From 1975 to 1977 Zulawski adapted the novel into a screenplay and began to film at various locations in Europe and Asia.
In the Autumn of 1977 the project came to a sudden halt with the appointment of Janusz Wilhelmi as the vice minister of Cultural Affairs in Poland.
Wilhelmi believed that the conflict between the Selenites and Szern in the film was a thinly-veiled allegory for the Polish peoples struggles with totalitarian Communist rule.
He ordered that the production be shut down and all the footage and related materials from the film to be destroyed.
Zulawski returned to France, despairing over the wasted time and effort he had put into the film and vowing never to work in Poland again.
Wilhelmi died a few months later in March of 1978 but it took the end of Communist rule in Poland eight years later for Zulawski to return to Poland and continue with the production of the film.
The footage, props and costumes that Wilhelmi had ordered to be destroyed were actually saved by the film studio and various members of the cast and crew.
However not enough was salvaged for Zulawski to complete the film the way he had intended.
Instead he edited together the footage he had and added a commentary to the film explaining what he had intended to do and filling in the narrative gaps.
This version ran at 166 minutes and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988.with some critics describing it as a ‘ruined masterpiece.’