Hero: the London Underground
On 10 January 1863, a combination of technological and engineering prowess and sheer bloody-mindedness bore a remarkable fruit. For the first time in history, a steam train was running (mostly) beneath the earth’s surface. On this, its first day of operation, this ‘train in a drain’ carried 40,000 passengers in total, between London’s Paddington and Farringdon stations.
Not that everyone was impressed. As a Times editorial said: ‘It seemed an insult to common sense to suppose that people who could travel as cheaply on the outside of a Paddington bus would prefer, as a merely quicker medium, to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London.’
And in a way The Times had it about right. This was an ‘insult to common sense’. The idea of transporting people underground using steam engines, which had only recently started carrying passengers overground, was incredible. In its audacity, its leaping ahead of what had hitherto been deemed possible, an underground train network did seem an affront to common sense. Which was precisely why that moment 150 years ago, when the London Underground finally saw the murk of day, is to be celebrated: at its inception, the Tube was a testament to human ingenuity.
Since the 1860s, the Underground has of course expanded massively, transforming London in the process. Semi-rural villages such as Hammersmith have been brought close and built up. Workers once confined, as the original Underground advocate Charles Pearson put it, to ‘their pestilent abodes’ in the ‘overcrowded’ centre were able to live in greater comfort further out. Indeed, even now the incredible ability of London’s Underground to compress time and space is underwritten by its status as the third-largest metro system in the world (after the Beijing Subway and the Shanghai Metro).
Yet, much of the Tube’s glory belongs to the past. Many of the lines, from the rival Circle and District lines, which were both up and running by the 1870s, to the later Central, Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines, had all been opened by the 1930s. This was also the period when, under the partial stewardship of Frank Pick of Underground Electric Railways Limited, the Tube acquired its distinctive iconography from the ‘roundel’ insignia to the commissioned art emblazoned on station and train alike. It is notable that since its early twentieth-century heyday, only two more lines have been built – the Victoria (1968) and the Jubilee (1979, expanded in 1999).