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Grand Central: An Engine Of Scientific Innovation


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. Last month New York's Grand Central Terminal celebrated its 100th anniversary, and while you might think of it as just a train station, Grand Central actually pioneered a lot of scientific innovations that spread across the country. Standard time, for example. You probably take today's time zones for granted, but back in the 1800s there more than 50 time zones around the country dictated by the local railroad operators.

Grand Central Station led the way in adopting standard time. Then there was the debate over long-distance electric trains and how to power them: direct current or alternating current, another innovation born at Grand Central. How about green lights? Did you know they once meant stop? These are just some of the very surprising facts in the next guest's book, "Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America." Sam Roberts is the urban affairs correspondent at the New York Times and author of "Grand Central." He joins us here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SAM ROBERTS: Thank you, John.

DANKOSKY: There is so much to talk about in this book, about Grand Central, but one of the things that's most fascinating is how they run all these trains all the time. You write that more than 100 years ago, they were running one train every 45 seconds during rush hour. This was way before computers. How did they coordinate all that?

ROBERTS: With a lot of people, a lot of people, a lot of manual switches. There were something like over 100 switchmen working in the yards at Grand Central at any given time. Now they've been replaced by fewer than a dozen traffic controllers using computers. But then there were, as you say, about 500 trains maybe on a day running every 45 or so seconds. Now there are as many as 700 days, and in rush hour running about every 30 seconds.

And it's really a miracle how well this thing works.

DANKOSKY: You know, when Grand Central was built, it wasn't really in the center of anything. We think of it now as the center of Manhattan, but it wasn't really like that at the time. Tell us that story.

ROBERTS: Absolutely true. When the original Grand Central opened in 1871, the New York Times said this place is neither grand nor central. What's it doing all the way uptown on East 42nd Street? But what was so fascinating about Grand Central, and you can't say this about the great, late, lamented Penn Station, is Grand Central brought Midtown to its doorstep. It shifted the whole center of gravity of Midtown Manhattan.

DANKOSKY: We're talking with Sam Roberts from the New York Times. If you have questions about Grand Central Terminal, yes we'll get to why it's called Grand Central Terminal in a moment, 1-800-989-TALK, that's 1-800-989-8255 as we talk about the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal.

So one thing I do need to get from you is: How exactly did you get downtown from Grand Central back in the early days because there weren't trains going everywhere.


DANKOSKY: Horse-drawn, yeah.

ROBERTS: Horse-drawn trolleys, indeed. They kept pushing the ban on coal-burning locomotives farther and farther uptown because they were disruptive, they produced smoke, cinder, soot, and finally they said none south of Grand Central, none south of 42nd Street. So it meant you had to take a horse-drawn carriage down - all the way downtown from there.

DANKOSKY: And that soot and smoke and all the problems with the steam train, that's part of the reason why we got the electric railroad in the first place.

ROBERTS: That is exactly right. Grand Central, as I say in the book, sort of began by accident or by an accident in 1902. A train coming out of the Park Avenue Tunnel, the engineer just could not see, went through a green light, which meant stop or slow down in those days, crashed into another train. Ultimately about two dozen people were killed.

And the railroad was terrified of being held criminally liable when it was obvious that these engineers could not see coming out of the tunnel. And that's when William Wilgus, who was the chief engineer of the New York Central and kind of the hero of this story, said we've got to go to electrification.

DANKOSKY: And how long did it take for electrification to get up and running? Because this is a brand new thing.

ROBERTS: It was a brand new thing, and people don't realize, but this was early in the 19th century. Electricity was relatively new as a tool for locomotion. Frank Sprague, Edison, Westinghouse were all pioneers in this. They - the accident was 1902. The state legislature said you've got to have electric trains at least running in Manhattan by 1908. And the New York Central came in two years early, actually started the electrification in 1906.

DANKOSKY: So this is a science show, and you knew you'd get a question about AC versus DC for powering the trains. So how do we arrive at where we arrived?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, I'm still one of those people who thinks the current leaks out of outlets. So, you know, I might not be the best thing to ask.

DANKOSKY: I think AC/DC is a rock band. So we're on the same - OK.

ROBERTS: That, too. But DC can be transmitted over longer distances, and obviously that turned out to be a big benefit for trains. So you don't need to worry about that so much for a toaster that plugs into a wall, but an electric train definitely. And what was so interesting about it, and I learned doing the book, was that the debate over AC/DC in powering trains was a reprise of the debate that Edison and Westinghouse had had over how to power the electric chair.

Edison said oh, you know, this alternating current is really dangerous, it's the best thing to use to kill people. So he surreptitiously powered New York state's electric chair with alternating current, and it worked. I'm not sure how persuasive that was in getting the New York Central Railroad to go with direct current, but it did.


DANKOSKY: And of course the trains run on direct current for certain parts of their run, but then once they go to that overhead power, it switches.

ROBERTS: Yeah, some of the overhead power, particularly in Connecticut on the New Haven line, switches, yes.

DANKOSKY: So I understand from your book that there's actually a button, like a don't press this button kind of button, a red button that you can just press and just take the whole thing right offline.

ROBERTS: Well, one of the great things in doing the book was I got to see things in Grand Central that I have never even known existed. There is a basement room 90 feet below the street level where the old transformers used to convert the alternating current into direct current. Now, you know, one of those relic transformers are still there, but now they've been replaced by quietly humming computers.

There is a little red button there that if you press, you can shut down the entire railroad.

DANKOSKY: One of the most interesting things in this book is how you write about modern time starting at Grand Central. And we don't - we take time for granted. Time is just what it says on the clock, it's what our iPhone tells us it is. It didn't used to be that way. Time was different every place you were, and Grand Central helped to standardize it.

ROBERTS: It definitely did. Time was when the sun was directly overhead, and that was noon wherever you happened to be. There was something like 50, and earlier than that even 100, different time zones in the United States, until Charles Dowd, who was a principal at a school that ultimately became Skidmore College Upstate New York, said wait a minute, this is crazy. Let's divide the country into four time zones, 15 degree longitude difference.

The sun travels about an hour - travels 15 degrees in about an hour, and the railroads adopted that time in 1883, well ahead of the federal government. It was the railroads who imposed standard time, and the first place it began was at Grand Central.

DANKOSKY: We're going to take some phone calls at 1-800-989-TALK for Sam Roberts. His book is "Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America" here on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Nick(ph) is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hi Nick, go ahead.

NICK: Hello.


NICK: What I was going to say is with the -where the railroads got their time was from the Alleghany Observatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was one of the second-biggest mirrored telescopes at the time. But he would - refractive telescopes. And they would look at a star and, you know, get the time from that rather than looking at the sun, and then they would - go ahead.

DANKOSKY: No, I was just going to say Sam Roberts, is this right? This is where they were getting the time?

ROBERTS: That is one of the places they used. But the problem was that cities all over the country used different times. And it was very tough if you were trying to catch a train, if you were transferring from a train that was going to Boston to New York to Washington to somewhere else, because each station would have more than one clock explaining what the time was where you left, where you are now and where you're going, so very difficult when the trains began going longer distances and when telegraph began connecting them to come up with those kind of schedules without a standard version of time.

DANKOSKY: I have to ask: What happened to the guy who popularized standard time?

ROBERTS: Oh, you don't want to know. Poor Charles Dowd, he got hit by a train, run over by a train in Upstate New York. And as I say in the book, it's been lost to history whether that train was on time or not.

DANKOSKY: Oh dear. Let's go to Ken, Ken's calling from Aptos, California. Hi there, Ken, go ahead.

KEN: Hello, I'm a pretty consistent listener to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Thank you very much for taking my call. I'm calling specifically with a question about the difference between stations and terminals. I heard you refer to Grand Central Station, and recently I heard a program on KQED, where they said it was specifically a terminal. And then when Penn Station came along, that was a station, and I do not know the difference. So if you could help me out, I'd appreciate it.

ROBERTS: I can, indeed. It's one of the many things I learned in doing this book. A terminal is where trains terminate. They end there. They stop there. If they don't stop there, as someone said, there'd be an awful crash. One of the interesting things and innovations at Grand Central is there is a loop that allows the trains to turn around, but that is the end of a line. A station like Penn Station, like Union Station in Washington, is a building through which trains pass on their way somewhere else. But all of the trains, the New York central trains coming into Grand Central terminated there.

DANKOSKY: But you make a point early on that you say people do call it Grand Central Station. At the end of the day, people all over the world say Grand Central Station, and it's OK to call it a station, right?

ROBERTS: I think it's OK.

DANKOSKY: You're (unintelligible).

ROBERTS: I give everyone permission. I think that's fine. And one of the fascinating things, John, is that you go anywhere in the world and you say, my God. This place is just like Grand Central Station, and everybody knows what you're talking about. It's hustle. It's bustle. It's frenzy. It's sort of that controlled chaos that we see in Grand Central itself.

DANKOSKY: So a lot of our listeners had never been there. Maybe they've seen pictures, but they've not walked through the grand hall. If you walk through and you look up, what do you see?

ROBERTS: You see a 25,000-square-foot mistake, in fact. And a commuter noticed this just a couple of days after the terminal opened in 1913, looked up at the celestial ceiling - these constellations painted on the ceiling - and discovered that they were backwards. Exactly why they're backwards is not entirely clear, another thing that's sort of bit lost to history. But it appears that the Columbia University astronomer who provided the sky chart assumed that the painters would hold it above their heads and paint. And in fact, they put it down.

So what we have is a celestial heavenly view of the constellations, rather than a realistic view from the ground up. The lesson there is don't use those stars to navigate by.

DANKOSKY: As you write, it would be God's view.

ROBERTS: It would be God's view.

DANKOSKY: Yes, exactly. Let's go to Theresa in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Hi there, Theresa. You're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

THERESA: Hi. Can you hear me?

DANKOSKY: Sure can. What's up?

THERESA: Oh, great. I just have a quick question. I feel silly now. I was told that after the renovation, when the ceiling, the beautiful ceiling was all sooty and dirty, that they - that I believe it's the north - near the stairs, in the north part of the terminal, that they left a couple of the bricks dirty and sooty so people could see how dirty it used to be before they renovated it. Is that true?

ROBERTS: That is a true story. There's a rectangle of the ceiling that overlaps between the blue ceiling and the darker stone. If you look at the rectangle, it's almost entirely black. Now, that is the before of the - what you see the rest of the ceiling, the after. It's interesting because when the engineers went up and looked at that during the renovation in the 1990s, they assumed that was soot and smoke and cinders from the coal-burning locomotives. It turned out to be tar and nicotine from smokers.

Now, someone asked me at a book signing recently, was I aware of just where that rectangle was in terms of the constellations? And I said no, which just goes to show I keep learning new things about Grand Central. It turns out that the rectangle formed by tar and nicotine is next to the constellation Cancer, coincidence or not.

DANKOSKY: Coincidence or not, that's pretty - that's a pretty good one. Let's go to one more phone caller, here. Let's go to - oh, Hugh in Oakland, California. Hi, there, Hugh. Go ahead. You're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

HUGH: Thank you. There are so many great things about exploring Grand Central, such as the archway downstairs where you can talk on the one side, and somebody can hear you on the other. And we had a tour before some of the renovations, including the - the installing of the second staircase, which was original - which was not originally built, but the architects who were doing the restoration explained to us - and I wanted to know if Mr. Roberts covered this - that Grand Central was originally built to have a taller building, if not a skyscraper, installed - built above the station itself.

I wanted to find out if this is true. And what they explained to us was the large walkway on the side above the - where the - one of the staircases is now, and that you can see on the cover of your book was a spot where people would cross back and forth from staircase to staircase, creating a moving, almost water-like effect in - on the different levels of that window/walkway.

DANKOSKY: There's - you've got an awful lot in there.

ROBERTS: You've got all that information right. I'll try to remember it.

DANKOSKY: And hold on for one second, Sam. I'll just say I'm John Dankosky, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Go ahead, Sam.

ROBERTS: OK. Yes, those are skyways that marry form and function. They are giant glass windows that serve to let light in, to let air in, and also to serve as corridors between what would have been the four elevator banks of that world's tallest building that was going to be built atop Grand Central. You mentioned the whispering gallery on the lower level, one of those fascinating architectural and engineering gems. No one knows for sure whether Rafael Guastavino, when he built that interlocking tile ceiling, intended to do this.

But if you stand in one corner - and you can see people doing it all the time - and whisper into the wall just like this, about 40 feet on the other side of the gallery, the sound travels up a parabolic curve, and you can hear it just perfectly. There's so many other engineering innovations. There are ramps...

DANKOSKY: I was going to ask you about the ramps. This is amazing.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Well, we take ramps for granted...

DANKOSKY: Of course.

ROBERTS: ...but the ramps were put there so that people would not have to carry luggage up and down stairs. And it was such an innovation at the time, that one magazine harkened back to Julius Caesar and said this is what the Romans used to build out of earthworks when they were storming the walls or the ramparts of an ancient city. They would build ramps like this to go over the walls. And at Grand Central, they became a terrific innovation that saved people lots of breaking backs.

DANKOSKY: But it also saved the terminal, in a way, because when it was restored, if we didn't have those ramps in place and you had to retrofit it for Americans with Disabilities compliance, all of a sudden you'd have a completely different building. But because they built the ramps 100 years ago, we never had to tear it down.

ROBERTS: Absolutely true. In fact, the caller mentioned the staircase. There were originally two staircases planned in that main concourse. One was never built because the builders said: Who's ever going to go to the East Side of Manhattan? It's, you know, cow pastures, tenements. They built that new staircase during the renovation, and it's almost a twin of the original, except this one has to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

DANKOSKY: Charles is in Kent, Connecticut. Hi, Charles.


DANKOSKY: Hi. You're on the air.

CHARLES: Hi. I was just calling to ask whether or not Mr. Roberts has ever gone to the Hayden Planetarium, where he would find a document called the Uranometria. It's a celestial cartography compilation. And that's where the source material for the terminal ceiling was originally found when my grandfather was just an assistant to the artists that did the ceiling back in 1913. In 1945, when the ceiling was repainted, my grandfather, we have the same name...


CHARLES: ...also replicated what was originally there. The Uranometria that was done in 1603 caused a huge uproar because, in fact, all the images were depicted from God's point of view. The source material itself was backwards.

DANKOSKY: Well, this is interesting. Have you been there, Sam? I'm sure (unintelligible).

ROBERTS: I have indeed, yes.


ROBERTS: The caller is absolutely right.

DANKOSKY: Sam Roberts is author of "Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America." He's the urban affairs correspondent at The New York Times. Thanks so much for joining me, and thanks for this book.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

DANKOSKY: Coming up after this break, a little evolution in action, how cliff swallows are adapting to escape traffic and stay alive. That's coming up next.


DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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