Monday, September 13, 2010

"The People Ride in a Hole in the Ground"

by Drew Martin

If I were to ask you if the arts and the subway system have in anything in common, you would probably think of some connection (no pun intended). Perhaps the musicians and other buskers would come to mind; performing for the waiting and hurried commuters; or the less-but-more-visible graffiti artists, such as Keith Haring (R.I.P., below-left), of the underworld.

Trained and collaborative artists and craftsmen have been part of subway station design from the very start. New York has its share of new and old tile mosaics, while Moscow (above) is over-the-top and the most spectacular of all systems with classical statues, chandeliers, ornamentation and wall paintings in many stations.

The subway system has also set the stage for too-many-to-count cinematic action scenes, including the unyielding Agent and Neo fights in The Matrix. The 2003 Hungarian film, Kontroll (Control), takes place entirely in the Budapest metro.

The very first article I ever wrote and published was for the Prognosis in 1992. I had been a cartoonist up to that point and was not sure how to approach journalistic writing. I proposed an article about the Prague metro so I decided to visit every station, where I would get out, note distinguishing features, go above ground and take some pictures, then descend to continue on my journey.

I was only 22 and new to Czechoslovakia. The language was still a mystery to me so the newspaper had arranged for an interpreter to accompany me on an official interview. I was, however, stood up by the young, slinky Czech polyglot who decided last minute to join another reporter to cover the opening of a tattoo parlour, which was a big deal for the young Bohemians. So I went alone and interviewed an engineer from the Prague metro.

I was happy to hear that one of the senior staff back at the paper thought it was the best article of the year. Looking back at it, I am surprised by its thoroughness. I even had a chart of the former communist station names, with their post-Velvet Revolution new names and their meanings. (click on it to read, right)

Metro is the most common term used around the world. Alternatively, London's Underground ("the Tube") is the oldest and largest in the world. New York does not have a metro; it is a subway. The difference is that a metro has a sense of order and planning, the way the Russian's fabulously designed and made the system in Prague.

The New York City subway system is a labyrinth, which has less to do with engineering than it does with blind-mammalian burrowing and spelunking. As a map, it looks as if someone was trying to untangle a mass of knotted yarns and frustratingly started cutting at unyielding loops, then tossed the whole mess on the ground. It is a fine example of the origins of drawing; converting random experiences into abstract movements.

As for what to call the vehicles within the can call them the subway in, "I rode the subway this morning." or "I took the subway instead of a cab." If you want to be specific to a segment you can say subway car as in, "The crazy man got on the subway and everyone move to the next car."

The difference between a train and a subway is that the former system only requires a locomotive engine to push or pull a series of free-wheeling sections. The subway is quite different and more sophisticated and complicated. Each car is powered to pull its own weight. This is known as the Sprague System, named after its inventor Frank Sprague, the "father of electric traction", who pioneered the idea of multiple unit train controls and the spring-loaded trolley pole for collecting electricity from overhead wires. The system was first introduced in Richmond, VA at the start of 1888 and could run more than 30 trolley cars at the same time. This was a huge advancement, which made the subway system possible because he resolved previous issues of transmitting an electric current from a stationary power source to a moving vehicle and by introducing the first electric motor that ran at a constant speed under various loads.

Sprague had previously been an associate of Thomas Edison and introduced mathematical methods to the inventor's costly trial-and-error experiments. In 1884, he founded the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company. One of his sons, Robert, established the Sprague Electric Company, which became a leading manufacturer of electronic components. In 1942, the Company bought a former textile mill in North Adams, Massachusetts and converted it into an electronics plant. The 13-acre campus is now MASS MoCA (right), the largest center for contemporary arts in the United States.