New PBS Digs Into The Birth Of The American Subway

How the Boston subway operated like a modern-day start-up to overcome a litany of engineering challenges and public fears.

New PBS Digs Into The Birth Of The American Subway
[Photos: courtesy of PBS]

WHAT: American Experience’s The Race Underground, premiering Jan. 31 on PBS.


WHO: Executive produced by American Experience’s Mark Samels; written/produced/directed by Michael Rossi, based in part on Doug Most’s book of the same name; featuring urban planner Asha Weinstein Agrawal and historians Brian Cudahy, Frederick Dalzell, Clifton Hood, Mark Gelfand, Stephen Puleo and Rosalind Williams.

WHY WE CARE: Boston’s reputation as a technology center dates back to the late 19th century, as the first city to overcome the engineering challenges—not to mention greedy businessmen and residents’ fears—to build the nation’s first subway, paving the way for those in New York, Philadelphia, and others.

By the late 1800s, Boston reigned as America’s most crowded city. Nearly 400,000 people and more than 8000 horses pulling the trolleys packed a downtown under a square mile that reeked of manure.

But American inventor and Thomas Edison protégée Frank Sprague envisioned a subway system that would trade the London Underground’s coal-powered steam engine with a motor run on the latest technology, electricity. Launching the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company, he wrangled investors and political support, consolidated streetcar companies, and prevailed against heated opposition by a populace fearful of disruption and technological advancement.

In 1987, after two years of construction, the Boston subway opened. More than 250,000 Bostonians rode the underground on its first day; and 50 million in the first year.

“Frank Sprague lived in the shadow of Edison but played as important a role in the development and growth of cities as any person in our history,” says Doug Most, author of The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway. “His motor is one of the most important contributions, alongside Henry Ford’s vehicle and the Wright Brothers’ plane, as one of the most important engineering achievements of our time.”


This clip, co-produced by American Experience and start-up funder MassChallenge, explains how the creation of the Boston subway mirrors the path of start-ups today:

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.