The pages to the left examine a machine. It moves masses of people to where they want to go, when they want to go, quickly and cheaply. But it is more than machinery. It has tailored New York City. It has decided where people live and work, it has built neighborhoods. It has shaped the people themselves. For a century, millions have every morning tripped up the steps to meet the day, tuned by the rumble, the crush, the tempo of the subway.

The island of Manhattan is 13 miles long and two miles across. In 1800 its 79,216 citizens all lived in the extreme southern tip. New York was smaller than Philadelphia and was dwarfed by London's one million, and by Paris, a city then of 700,000 people.

But New York's population doubled between 1820 and 1840, and doubled again between 1840 and 1860. By the time of the Civil War the population was 700,000 and between 1860 and 1890 it doubled again.

In 1898 Manhattan united with Brooklyn, which had been a separate city, and also with Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Consequently the 1900 census counted 3,437,202 New Yorkers in what had become the world's second largest town.

One borough though, contained an inordinate share of that population. There would be 2,331,542 Manhattanites by 1910. That was more people than lived in 33 of the nation's 46 states. Manhattan, while it contained only 14% of the city's total land area, housed forty nine of every 100 New Yorkers. One sixth of all New Yorkers lived below 14th Street on 1/82 of the city's land. The Lower East Side with around 700 people per acre had a density unequaled in the world. (Manhattan's average density was 161 per acre, B'klyn 32.5, the Bronx 15.6, Staten Island 2.2, Queens 3.8)

In 1827 the last of the oxcarts that had served the town as public transportation since the days of Peter Stuyvesant, were replaced by 10 cent a ride stage coaches (omnibuses), which in turn were supplemented in the 1850s by 6 cent horse cars which rolled on rails imbedded in the street pavement. (The Bleeker Street Broadway line was pulled by horses until 26 July 1917.)

In 1860 Manhattan had 14 horse car companies providing 38 million rides a year, 29 omnibus lines operating 671 vehicles. The streets reeked and that dime per ride was not cheap.

As it approached the 20th century the city was choking and bogged down. It could no longer move, let alone surge and it was misshapen. New York amounted to a creature with a huge swollen leg while the other limbs and torso were scrawny and underdeveloped.

To continue growing, and to grow soundly, a way had to be found to distribute the population.

Charles Harvey had offered a solution in 1868. It was a cable car running on an elevated frame. In 1872 Rufus Gilbert started a franchise for an elevated pneumatic railroad. Neither happened. However, the outgrowth of those efforts was miles and miles of massive superstructures on which compact steam locomotives pulled carriages high above the city's streets.

Richmond, Virginia successfully electrified its horse-cars in 1888. New York took a while to follow suit. Not until 1902 were its elevated steam locomotives replaced by electric traction.

The third innovative step, running electric vehicles on rails under the streets, was achieved in 1897. But not by NYC. It was Boston which in 18 months and at the cost $5 million, built the nation's first subway. New York's Mayor Abram S Hewitt had already proposed one to NY's Board of Aldermen in early 1888, but the trains only began to run beneath NY in Oct 1904.

In 1900, when the work of tunneling beneath NY began, Paris, Berlin, and Budapest had had subways for years. London's Underground was already puffing spurts of steam up into the streets through vents, and scaring the horses, in 1863.

That is part of the story related here, the challenges the subway beat and those which yet remain to be licked. A few solutions, like an an innovative Rush-hour Train, are proposed in the The Future section.