Duck Duck Book

58 – new york’s forgotten substations
12.1.2008, 8:01 pm
Filed under: technology

New York’s forgotten substations : the power behind the subway / Christopher Payne.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 625.4 P346n 2002; two copies, no holds]

Does it not seem that everything about a big city’s subway system should be underground? All the machinery and all the mechanisms to control the subway surely ought to fit neatly below the streets, as the stations and tunnels do. Even the transit system control room that sometimes features in action films is in a windowless room and therefore, filmgoers imagine, is probably underground along with all the other subway infrastructure.

But not everything that makes the trains go fits under the earth. Notwithstanding suburban lines and stations that are wholly aboveground, the power that electrifies the third rail or the overhead wire has to come from somewhere — usually somewhere well away from the tunnels and the tracks. In New York City, the subway system was built with strategically placed power substations near each line. In each one, electrical power from generating stations around the region was converted from high voltage alternating current to low voltage direct current, which ran the trains. In the early 20th century, each of these substations was filled with giant round machines called rotary converters, as well as a quantity of other mechanical equipment like switches, busses, gauges, and breakers.

These substations have now been taken out of service, or had their equipment replaced with more modern technology — but in the late 1990s as the last manual substations were being scrapped, photographer Christopher Payne visited as many as he could, and took pictures of the buildings and their equipment. In this slim volume, some substations are shown with modern electronic equipment side by side with out-of-date manual equipment. Some are disused hulks filled with crumbling machinery, weeds, and peeling paint. Some photographs focus on the incredible workmanship and decorative detail in utilitarian structures like cast iron staircases, window frames, and building facades. All of Payne’s pictures highlight the inherent beauty of the machines and their environment.

Payne introduces his photographs with a series of short essays on the history of New York City’s transit substations, the machines they employed, the methods of their operation, and the basics of how they worked. The essays are supported by dozens of historical and contemporary photographs of substation buildings and workers running the power conversion machinery, and many diagrams explaining the layout of the machinery and the principles by which it operated. Payne’s history and technical explanations are fantastically clear, and his own photographs are both beautiful and interesting. So you should find the book educational, if you want to learn more about the power that runs the trains; and should also find it engaging, if you are interested in the beauty that can be found in practical things.


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