Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: A sightseeing underwater bus imagined in 1932

September 28, 2011 - 12:04 PM
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New terrain for D.C. tourists. (Photo: Popular Science)

The June 1932 cover of Popular Science featured one bus that was truly iconic — an orange underwater sightseeing bus that could take passengers under the depths of the ocean to see the strange watery world below. Inside the many bus windows are passengers' faces filled with awe, tourists to the marine life around them. "Ocean Marvels Seen From Underwater Bus," the cover boldly announces below the illustration.

This underwater sightseeing bus remained a mere concept in 1932, and I featured the wonderful cover image in a recent gallery of famous buses throughout history. I loved the idea and the cover, especially considering it came nearly 80 years ago and vowed then to find a week to include it among my dispatches of transit history. Now is that time.

What the Popular Science piece highlights are the designs of an engineer from Nice, France who imagines "sightseeing jaunts like this, beneath the waves along ocean beaches ... Suddenly there is a swishing noise. A greenish veil of seawater sweeps over the outside of the porthole window beside you. Past it glide forms of marine life. You are traveling on the floor of the sea!" The article includes sketches and designs for the "electric submarine automobile," which the inventor intended as an "amusement device" for people curious about the oceans — a way to pretend they're Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from the comfort of a cushy bus chair. Although recreational submarines for tourists have come to pass throughout the 20th century, this amusing magazine piece talks of submarines in the language of traditional transit. We're imaging an underwater "bus," with illustrations suggesting that "tracks may be laid" on the floor of the sea near popular resorts.

It's a delightful look back into the imagination of transit engineers past and worth a glance today. Can you imagine one of these sightseeing aquatic buses venturing under the waters of the Potomac? Or perhaps imagine an underwater Metrobus, even — though a submarine WMATA strains even my powers of imagination. Read the 1932 Popular Science piece here:

Read more pieces of Metro history here.

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