We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Underground engineering on Channel 5

Earlier this week I watched a television show which was advertised as being about London’s underground railway system, and the technology that made it possible, but which was really about underground railways in general.

I really, really enjoyed it, when it was first shown on Wednesday night. And I am writing this in some haste because the show is being shown again tonight, at 7pm, Channel 5. If you love stuff about high tech engineering and the extraordinary ingenuity and cunning and (not least) bravery and physical endurance that goes into it, then watch it. Or (if you have a life) set your video, or whatever videos are called these days. (Or be twenty first century about it and watch it on the www, which I can’t do because of something about my computer blocking adverts.)

My favourite bit was when they explained how a noted French engineer with the delightful name of Fulgence Bienvenue put a tunnel through the bank of the River Seine in Paris. Problem: the bank was not made of proper earth. It was made of mud. How do you drill a big tube through mud? Answer: you freeze the mud, and then drill through it, insert the tube, and … well, job done. By the time the … I was going to say permafrost, but make that tempafrost … has turned back into mud, the tube is in there and train-ready.

Another major engineer whom I’d never heard of until now also got a well deserved pat on the back from the television. This was an American called Sprague:

Hailed during his lifetime as the “Father of Electric Traction” by leaders in the fields of science, engineering and industry, Frank Julian Sprague’s achievements in horizontal transportation were paralleled by equally remarkable achievements in vertical transportation.

In other words, Sprague didn’t just make underground trains work far better by replacing one massive steam engine at the front with lots of far smaller electric engines all the way along the train, which as I am sure you can imagine worked far better, not just because of all that steam, but also because it meant the trains could be as long as you want. He also pioneered electric engines for lifts, as we call them over here. As a result of Sprague’s elevator engines, skyscrapers scraped the sky a lot more than hitherto, as was well explained in this TV show.

The bit at the end about how they squirted a new concrete foundation under Big Ben, to stop it falling over when they were sticking the Jubilee Line extension right next to it, was not so epoch-making. But it was fun.

6 comments to Underground engineering on Channel 5

  • llamas

    May I recommend “London under London’, by Trench (no, really) and Hillman. Fascinating history of burrowing under the capital, all the way back to the 16C.



  • chuck

    freeze the mud

    Ah, so Henry J. Kaiser, founder of 100 companies, wasn’t the first to use that technique. I love this Le Tourneau quote that turned up in one of the bio’s, “There is no such thing as a big job, only, small machines.”

  • I only just noticed, but don’t you think it’s also fun that Sprague’s achievements, horizontal and vertical, are described as “paralleled”?

  • renminbi

    Frank Sprague’s practical electric traction made possible the modern tramway; before that it was either horsepower or else the cable car for urban mass transportation. In the US cable cars supplanted or supplemented the horse drawn tram in 28 cities during the last third of the 19th century. Today only one such system remains-in SanFrancisco.
    May I recommend “The Cable Car in America” by George W. Hilton, which is the definitive source? The book is dedicated to Frank w. Sprague,who put the cable car out of business.
    Thank-you for indulging one my obsessions.

  • llamas

    Sprague’s electric traction motors were/are so versatile that, to this very day, the HVAC blowers in the Fox Theatre in Detroit are powered by 4x Sprague street-car motors and controllers. They keep a special converter running just to make the 400 V DC required to run these. The back-of-house elevator (affectionately known as ‘Christine’) as well as the rotating/elevating stages, are similarly powered.

    Detroit hasn’t had steet-cars since the 50s but these things just keep soldiering on. New brushes every now-and-then is all.

    Sprague’s son Robert founded the Sprague Electric Company, maker of discrete components, especially capacitors, which survives to this very day as Vishay-Sprague.



  • Barry Sheridan

    Excellent programme. Thanks for the heads-up.