By Barbara Maranzani, history.com
1. The first Underground trains ran on steam.
Recent studies have found that London’s air quality below ground is 70 times worse than it is above, and that, due to exhaust and poor ventilation, a 40-minute ride on the system is equivalent to smoking two cigarettes. This may shock modern sensibilities, but the earliest riders would hardly have been surprised. While steam locomotives, fed by coal, had been traversing the British countryside for decades, few were prepared for what awaited them in the smoky, sooty confines of the enclosed Underground system. For nearly 30 years, the entire Underground was steam-powered. The first electrical powered lines opened in 1890, but a few steam-powered trains remained in regular use until 1961. However, this year, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the system, a series of steam-powered trains will once again travel throughout parts of the system.
2. London has one of the world’s great transit systems thanks, in part, to an American.
Like many other early mass-transit systems, the Underground started out as a series of privately held rail lines built by different developers. It wasn’t until American financier and transportation magnate Charles Yerkes came on the scene that the consolidated system we know today came into being. Yerkes, who had played a key role in developing Chicago’s elevated railway system, popularly known as the “L,” created the Underground Electric Railways Company of London in 1900, and eventually took control of several existing lines in the city—fighting off a challenge by another American businessman, J.P. Morgan, to unify London’s mass transit.
3. The Underground had one of the world’s first public escalators.
The very first escalator was installed in the Holloway Road station in 1906, but proved so unworkable it was never opened to the public. Five years later, the Underground got its first proper moving staircase, unveiled at Earl’s Court. In an attempt to calm a public still fearful of newfangled technology, the railway operators reportedly held an open demonstration of the contraption, hiring a one-legged man to ride up and down the system all day. While that story may be apocryphal, what is certain is that the new escalator had quite an unusual design. Instead of the flat edged “comb” we’re familiar with today, this early escalator ended in a diagonal pattern, which forced the right foot off the machine while the left one was still on the treads and caused a series of accidents in the first weeks of operation. The people eventually got the hang of it: Today, the 426 escalators in the system travel the equivalent distance of going around the world twice—every single week.