History Column

Your Engineering Heritage: No Eyestrain Permissible: Electrical Aspects of The Holland Tunnel As Revealed By The Stevens Archives

By Robert Colburn

The Holland Tunnel, completed in 1927, was the first long underwater tunnel to be built for automotive traffic. Connecting Manhattan Island with New Jersey, its portal-to-portal length is 2.6 km (1.6 miles) through the silt under the Hudson River. Originally named the Hudson River Vehicular Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel was renamed in honor of Clifford M. Holland, its first chief engineer, who died in 1924, while the tunnel was under construction.  Long considered a triumph of civil engineering, the Holland Tunnel also pioneered the application of several electrical technologies. The role played by those technologies is wonderfully documented in a collection of historical materials in the Stevens Institute of Technology Archives.

With the move of the IEEE History Center to Stevens in June 2014, a close collaboration has begun between the two organizations. Volunteer Intern Maryann Belanger, who works at both the IEEE History Center and the Stevens Archives, became fascinated by the papers and photographs which had belonged to Theodore Boettger, who was President of the New Jersey Interstate Tunnel Commission (the body which had commissioned the Holland Tunnel and had overseen its building). While assisting Stevens Archivist and Special Collections Librarian Leah Loscutoff in cataloging the Boettger collection, Belanger had mentioned the electrical history component of the tunnel to her colleagues at the IEEE History Center. They too became fascinated with the many pioneering technologies in IEEE’s fields of interest used in the Holland Tunnel (whose ventilation buildings are visible from the Stevens campus). The Holland Tunnel, with its collaboration among civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers and between two states, became an appropriate symbol of the IEEE-Stevens collaboration as well.

The ventilation system for the tunnel was considered a technological wonder of its day. Lethal carbon monoxide produced by automobile engines was one of the crucial problems the tunnel’s engineers had to solve in their designs. Because of the length of the tunnel’s tubes, ventilation systems used on existing railroad tunnels would not have worked. A pioneering system using a series of eighty-four 2.4-meter (8-foot) intake and exhaust fans powered by electric motors housed in four ventilation buildings replenished the air in the tunnels every ninety seconds.

Electric exhaust fan and motor on the third floor of the river ventilation building on the New York side. Photo: Stevens Institute of Technology Archive.

Fourteen potentiometers installed in the seven exhaust air ducts continuously recorded the level of carbon monoxide. The oxidation of the carbon monoxide with a granular catalyst resulted in a temperature rise within the catalyst cell.

North tunnel tube and gauges being set up for a traverse of fresh air duct. Photo: Stevens Institute of Technology Archive.

This temperature rise was transmitted to the potentiometer through a series of differential thermocouples, and thence to needles recording the levels on rolls of graph paper. If carbon monoxide levels reached a danger point, the human operator could use the control board, which was an electrical marvel in itself, to adjust ventilation fans. “Holland Tubes Run by Electric Brain” reported the New York Times on 22 March 1928. Modeled “on the intricate controls of a battleship,” the board used arrays of tiny colored lights to monitor the tunnel. When all was well, the lights maintained a steady glow, but one suddenly brightening would signal the location of trouble with pumps, ventilation fans, or fire. The control operator could turn switches to activate signals to stop traffic, while another switch summoned emergency vehicles.

Main supervisory control board in the New York administration building. Photo: Stevens Institute of Technology Archive.

The lighting of the tunnel, and even the color of its interior tile surface, was likewise carefully considered. “No eyestrain permissible” exulted the Westinghouse News Service in its 12 November 1928 issue, which described how the tunnel lighting enabled drivers to transition from full daylight into artificial light without impairing their ability to drive an automobile. To ensure that “the lights cannot go out,” the lights alternated which state they took their power from. One lamp drew electricity from New Jersey, the next from New York, and so on in alternation. Each state supplied power via three separate cables, and from two independent sources. The power for the ventilator motors was supplied by two independent circuits from four sources.

The Boettger collection is still in the process of being cataloged, and it is likely that many more fascinating newspaper clippings and photographs will be revealed as the work continues.

For more on the Stevens Archives and its collections, see https://www.stevens.edu/library/specialcollections

The IEEE History Center is supported in part by donations to the IEEE History Center Fund. https://www.ieeefoundation.org/pages/what-we-do/historical-preservation-funds

Robert Colburn is research coordinator at the IEEE History Center at the IEEE History Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: https://www.ieee.org/about/history_center/index.html.


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button