London Underground

In 1863, the world's first subterranean railroad opened in which city?

And the answer: London.  

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In 1863, the London Underground opened, and first featured steam engines that relied on coal, which created toxic fumes underground. Almost three decades later, in 1890, the first electric railway launched, running from King William Street in the City of London, under the River Thames, to Stockwell.

Before its creation, the idea of a railroad stretching beneath the length of London seemed the stuff of dreams. The public was beyond dubious – some local ministers went so far as to accuse the railway company as trying to break into hell. The expense and logistics of the project painted it in an unsavory light and, ultimately, few thought it would work.

And yet, on January 10, 1863, 30,000 people ventured underground to travel on the world's first subway: a four-mile stretch of line underneath London. After three years of construction and many setbacks, the Metropolitan Railway was open for business.    

London in the 1800s was deeply congested. Carts, costermongers, commuters and cows each jammed the road, making inter-city travel arduously time-consuming. It wasn't until visionary Charles Pearson proposed the idea of railways under the ground that things began to change. First using the "cut and cover" technique, workers dug a deep trench before constructing a tunnel of brick archways and refilling the hole above the new tunnel. While this method was effective, it was impractical, as no rail lines could be built below buildings without requiring their demolition.

Regardless of practicality, the Metropolitan Railway was wildly successful, and many new rail lines came to life in the years following its inception. By the late 1880s, however, the city had become too dense with buildings, sewers, and electric cables for the cut and cover technique. Thus the Greathead Shield was born. This new machine could tear through the earth at deeper levels, and only required the control of 12 men. These new lines, or "tubes," didn't disturb the surface and made it possible to dig under buildings.

By the early 20th century, subway systems popped up in most major cities. Today, underground rails occupy a necessary space in most cities around the globe.

Learn more about the world's first subway below.

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