John Harwood Pierce: Ranger of
the Plains

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An Interview with
John Harwood Pierce

Published in the Boston Globe circa 1888

[Reprinted from pages 380-383 of Fredrick Clifton Pierce's
Pierce Genealogy Being the Record of the Posterity of Capt. Michael, John and
Capt. William Pierce
Albany, NY: Joel Munsell's Sons, 1889]

A thousand miles an hour? May one breakfast in New York and lunch in London?

Nothing less, we assure you, when the theories of Colonel John H. Pierce are put in practice.

The story which a Globe reporter heard from the lips of the inventor was like a tale from the Arabian Nights or a conception of Jules Verne. Listening to his enthusiastic utterances one could readily believe that it was no visionary scheme of a Colonel Sellers, but the carefully thought-out plan of a man of no little ability.

When the reporter came upon the little manufacturing village of Plantsville, on the New Haven and Northampton railroad, it did not impress him with the idea that it was the home of an inventive genius, who is prepared to astonish the world with the magnitude of his scheme. Plantsville has about fifteen hundred inhabitants, and is the counterpart of hundreds of other places in New England. Evidently the natives are not all aware that one of the men who walks their streets carries under his hat so much of which they never dreamed in their wildest imagination. The first two men could not tell who he was; the third pointed out his boarding-place.

The colonel proved a good man to interview. He lost no time. He has been a newspaper man himself. Models, patents, scientific papers and drawings were scattered about his apartments. Colonel Pierce said that as yet little was known outside his room of his plan for connecting this continent with the old world by means of pneumatic tubes. Some statement of a brief nature has been made to a local paper; only within a day, almost, has it been developed to its present stage. In response to a request to give the facts the inventor was all enthusiasm, but spoke with care and precision, and with the air of a man who knew whereof he affirmed.

"Yes, I believe my plan is a practical one. This country can be connected with Europe by means of pneumatic tubes of large proportions. When the theories are reduced to practice they may be modified to some extent, but I assure you the time is coming–it may not be at once, but it is certain. You know the general public were, for a long time, sceptical about the sub-marine telegraph," said the colonel, smiling.

"How would they be laid and operated?"

"After the manner of the cables, as I will hereafter explain. We will be obliged to have them laid exactly straight, or as near straight as the surface of the globe will permit. They will be operated by currents of air, but in principles quite different in some respects from those governing the small lines now in use; the general principles remain the same. Of course, the tubes will always be in couples, with currents of air driven through them, the current in one tube always moving in an opposite direction from the other.

"In speaking of it I have usually taken for illustration the heaviest cannon. Suppose the orifice were still larger, or a car in place of the charge, the tube of the gun indefinitely continuous, and finally suppose the speed only governed by the rapidity with which the air can be forced through."

"Will it not be difficult to force currents of air the distance you contemplate?"

"Oh, no. The speed of this current can be made as great as desired, and with scarcely any limit, by simply using a great number of steam fans on the principle of those used in blast furnaces.

"How will they be stopped–speed be checked? "

"On half tubes of the proper length. As a tube approaches its terminus, branches or arteries for the passage of air currents only can connect with the companion tube, and thus the force be communicated from one to another. This is something of importance, and its utility will be proved of value for the conservation of power on short lines."

"These facts are of interest, but what the public most wishes to learn is about the utility of the scheme as a means of transit. How will it be constructed and run–and how will it save time," suggested the reporter.

"I have just reached the point. The tubes must be large enough to admit of passengers, of course, yet small as possible. I would have individuals sit tandem, one ahead of the other, you see. Friction? That would be prevented by ball bearings–necessary appliances. The motion would hardly be perceptible to the passengers. It is hard to speculate upon the speed attainable. One hundred miles an hour would be the easiest thing in the world. One thousand miles an hour is not impossible with polished steel surface for tube lining, and exterior friction we could provide for. The speed, owing to the curvature of the earth’s surface, will tend to overcome all weight, and make the pressure greatest on the upper portion of the tube, when running at maximum speed. Think of going to London in such a way and in such time as that.

"Yet it is no wild theory. A cannon ball, for instance, would pierce the air, but a car such as I describe would not; in fact, it would not move as fast as the air surrounding it.

"This method of transit possesses advantages over the railways. Temperature within the tube can be regulated perfectly by currents of air, heated or cooled. No jar will wear out the nerves of the passenger, or contact wear the car. There cannot possibly be collisions. No loss of power through exhaust, as with the locomotive. No army of employees to keep it in repair. No expensive purchase of right of way, or construction of tunnels, bridges, etc. One who carefully considers the subject cannot fail to see the advantages. Simplicity and economy are apparent."

"Earthquakes, do you say? I have thought of that. I do not think danger is to be apprehended from that score. One point that worried me a great deal was how to prevent parting, but that has been solved. You are right in supposing the expense of laying such a line would be considerable, but not as much as will be at first imagined. It will cost less than the sum for which a railroad can be laid and equipped."

Colonel Pierce said that it would not cost a very large sum to build an experimental line for a short distance, say a few miles. He looks to get capitalists interested in his plans sufficiently to put in the necessary funds to do this. The plan proposed would be an expensive one, however. It would be necessary to partially manufacture it as laid. Iron would be first used, and the pipe in sections as long as could be conveniently handled. When put together a wire netting would be wove around it. This would have to be continuous. Another netting outside these two, prepared in a similar way, and others still around these, until sufficiently strong to maintain the tubing beyond the possibility of parting. The whole should be filled with one of the many cheap gummy substances that would protect from water.

His plan has been submitted in its details to several experts, and has met with approval. The great question with the inventor at the present time is to get the necessary funds to carry forward the work, for he is a man of comparatively little capital. He feels confident that in the end he will receive the recognition and encouragement which his work deserves.

Colonel Pierce is a man with an interesting personal history. He comes of good, old New England stock, though he was born in Waltham, in the Province of Quebec. When he was eleven years of age his parents moved to Illinois. They were cultivated people, and educated their boy at home. He had but four years of schooling. In 1862, lie enlisted in the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry, and the Ninth United States Veteran Volunteers, and saw three years of active service. It will be remembered that this was Bob Ingersoll’s regiment. Pierce is one of the youngest veterans in the country, being but thirty-nine years of age. He was only fourteen when he enlisted, but was large of his age. He enlisted three times and was rejected twice because of his youth. He served in the line, and is perhaps the youngest veteran in the country who served in this capacity. Others younger were musicians. When he enlisted he was five feet three inches in height; when he was discharged he had grown to five feet nine inches.

He won his title of "colonel" from the fact that he was lieutenant-colonel of the Moraska cavalry, a regiment formed at the time of the uprising in the Black Hills, but which saw little active service.

Colonel Pierce has made a reputation as a newspaper man. He was for ten years on the Omaha Bee. Over the signature of "Ranger" he made the Black Hills famous, being the first to write them up. He spent some time on the staff of the Chicago Inter-Ocean and represented them at the railway exposition at the Sante Fe Tertio Millennial and New Orleans Exposition. Many newspaper men will remember him from the fact that he was secretary of the Press Association at the latter exposition. At "one time he published a literary magazine.

Two years ago he came east. Interest excited at expositions led him to study mechanics. The result has been several valuable inventions that afford him, to-day, considerable income from royalties. They are upon various articles manufactured by the Peck, Stow & Wilcox Company, one of whose numerous factories is located in Plantsville. These inventions and the necessary detail take up much of his time. What leisure he can spare is devoted to the development of his pet scheme–the cherished idea of his life. He is a man of fine presence, and when talking on his favorite topic his face lights up with enthusiasm, and he impresses the spectator as a man not only in earnest, but in love with his subject. Whether his scheme is a feasible one only time will tell, but one thing is very sure, it is certain to cause no little talk.

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