Traveling at the Speed of Death
Two essays out of Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City deal with two sides of a common superstition in the 1800s: that if you traveled at speeds in excess of 60 mph you would die.
One story involved daredevils jumping off of high places, specifically in this case, the Brooklyn Bridge. A climber who conquers a mighty mountain says he does it “because it’s there.” In much the same way, men took to jumping off the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge in the late 1800s. As in came to pass, however, jumping from a platform nearly a football field above the water was not dependably survivable. But, curiously, people argued over the reasons for the high death rate that these aggressive jumps produced.
The second story involved rudimentary attempts at mass transit, in which people were seated in a pneumatic tube, essentially extra-large versions of the familiar canister that transfers transactions at the local branch bank from car window to teller.
Inventors, again in the late 1800s, used enormous fans to pump the air out a sealed tunnel, creating a vacuum that powered the tube and, in theory at least, would whoosh the passengers to their destination at tremendous speed. (Elon Musk’s Hyperloop works on much the same principle.)
The similarity is that both involved human beings traveling at speeds that many people at the time — accustomed to traveling no faster than foot or hoof would allow — assumed it would be fatal. Trains by this time were rumbling along in excess of 50 mph, but much more velocity than that, people assumed, would create enough g-forces to smush one’s internal organs.
So people believed that both pneumatic tubes and daredevil jumps would achieve speeds — 60 or 70 mph — that would cause death. The first man to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, Robert Odlum, did not live, and many figured he was dead before he hit the water (In fact, the key to surviving the jump was hitting the water perpendicularly, something that wasn’t easy in the buffeting winds.)
Pneumatic tubes for human transit never reached their theoretical speeds, at least as a practical measure. But plenty of people wanted no part of such a fast and risky business even if it were possible.
So it wasn’t really until the end of the 1800s that advances in railroad technology and speed proved once and for all that high-speed travel wouldn’t kill you. At least not as a general thing.
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