Saturday, August 08, 2009


The Wooden Serpent

1900 postcard of Paris's moving sidewalk

I'm in the latest New Scientist (full text!) with the Victorian equivalent of the jetpack: the trottoir roulant of the 1900 Paris Exposition, a 3 km moving sidewalk for crosstown mass-transit, which one enraptured reporter described as "gliding around like a wooden serpent with its tail in its mouth."

Here's a haunting silent film taken from atop it:

It was such a success that one was proposed to run across the Brooklyn Bridge...
The first moving walkway had been unveiled eight years earlier at the Chicago World's Fair and had proved a huge success at subsequent expositions in Berlin and Paris. Chicago's walkway, the brainchild of engineer Max Schmidt, consisted of three rings, the first stationary, the second moving at 4 kilometres per hour and the third at 8 km/h, an arrangement that allowed walkers to adjust to each speed before moving to the next. With the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, Schmidt upped the ante. This time he envisaged a loop system at each end of the bridge, with a series of four ever-faster walkways. Passengers moved from one to another until finally taking a seat on the benches aboard the fastest, which whisked them across the bridge at 16 km/h...

One newspaper suggested that getting trapped with interminable bores would be a thing of the past: one "has only to suddenly step on the passing sidewalk to be carried rapidly beyond sight or hearing of his tormentor"... The New York Tribune called for "a moving sidewalk from Texas to New York to bring up cotton and those cheap winter strawberries", while another newspaper jokingly suggested that city buildings be placed on moving walkways so that people could simply stand around and wait for the right one to arrive.
There was an even earlier proposal for a 17 km-long system in Paris, and more calls right up through the 1930s for installing huge systems everywhere from LA to Detroit-- as well as along Wall Street, Grand Central Station, and Times Square.

Check out this amazing 1924 proposal for a "ring" system underneath downtown Atlanta:

One detail that wound up on the cutting-room floor: on November 7 1925 -- a year later, and well after the initial hubbub over this idea had died down -- the Atlanta Constitution reported the arrival of curious letter at City Hall:

City Clerk Walter C. Taylor received a letter Friday, written in French, and after vainly endeavoring to find some person at city hall to translate it, at last found a high school girl in the department of education who translated it. The letter offered to submit a bid on the construction of "moving sidewalks" in Atlanta.

The city, alas, never got its own trottoir roulant.

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