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7.8.14

Book Recommendation: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

Readable books about engineering topics are few and far between. Some of my favorites include:

  •  The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, as well as other books by Samuel C. Florman that encourage engineer types to think and be well-rounded.
  • Devil in White City, by Erik Larsen - this one's focus was the Chicago World's Fair and a serial killer, but in my mind the hero is the structural engineer who invented the Ferris wheel
  • Inviting Disaster, by James R. Chiles - the book that inspired Engineering Disasters on The History Channel. I confess that I'm a bit of a sucker for a good structural collapse (assuming no one gets hurt, of course).

I saw a review for The Race Underground, by Doug Most, in Boston Magazine while was on a recent trip to the Autodesk office in Waltham, MA. This book is about the history of urban transportation in Boston and New York, with interesting offshoots into London and Paris. The publisher's summary oversells the concept that the Whitney brothers' rivalry fueled the development of the subways of their respective cities. When you get into it, there was little rivalry and more two guys that happened to be in the right places at the right time when electricity, need and money came together to make a subway happen. Another misnomer is the concept of a "race." Nothing about these projects happened quickly. It took enormous will and money to overcome the fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

My favorite bit was about William Barclay Parsons' involvement with New York City's subway. He and Henry Steinway (yeah, the piano guy) designed the first few tunnels of what is now the IRT line of the New York subway system. Parsons went on to found Parson's Brinckerhoff  and became *THE GUY* to dig tunnels all over the world. What tickled me about his story is that at age 32 he was considered nearly too young to be heading up a project as large as the New York subway tunnels.


Gotta love civil engineering - the only field where being over 30 can still be considered young.

It does get a bit dry and protracted in parts, but overall a worthy read.