Victorian engineering was often something special. Those top-hatted inventors were always exercising their grey cells, attempting to conjure up something mechanical and fantastical. Tower Bridge for example, or the Brooklyn Bridge, its contemporary counterpart in New York. Believe it or not, there were once plans to link these two bridges via a strange brass "visual amplifier" named a Telectroscope. No actual physical travel was to be possible, just a projected image propagated along a deep subterranean tunnel. London would be able to look at New York, and New York would be able to look back at London. Now, at long last, one intercontinental Telectroscope has finally been built, emerging this week down beside the Thames at City Hall. Fancy a look?
This amazing invention resembles a giant steampunk telescope half-sunk into the piazza. At the Tower Bridge end is a circular glass screen, beyond which a long dark tube curves and bends into inky blackness beneath the earth. A variety of shiny valves and dials control the transmission, each no doubt essential to the design. As for what happens down the tunnel between here and New York, heaven only knows. There's the odd clue on the inventor's descendant's website, but I rather hope it's all done with mirrors.
Roll up, roll up. It only costs a quid to enter the Telectroscope's outer enclosure (although, grrr, New Yorkers don't have to pay a cent). You hand over your coin to the automated sellerin the glass booth by the entrance, and he signs your souvenir ticket with an invisible signature before depositing it in front of you. Next, walk along to the screen and join the small crowd peering into Manhattan. There it is, that small distant circle projected deep inside the machine. That crowd you're staring at is 3500 miles away, and they're staring 3500 miles back at you. Wave now!
It's fascinating watching to see what two distant groups of strangers do in this situation. Their only possible connection is visual, but some still choose to shout unheard words of greeting. Both sides have a small whiteboard on which short messages can be scribbled, although the pens have pretty feeble nibs so it's very hard to read what the other half are saying. But not impossible. "Hello from New York!" "It's very sunny here!" "Blow us a kiss!" Big smiles! What not enough people appear to be doing is to put the marker pen down, lower their camera and actually interact with their transcontinental counterparts. This should be long distance mime, it should be animated two-way audience participation. But it'll probably just end up as a few Flickr photos and forty seconds uploaded to Youtube.
You have three weeks to get yourself down to City Hall (or, indeed, the Fulton Ferry Landing) and enjoy the transatlantic Telectroscope experience. The enclosure is open 24 hours a day, allegedly, which will keep the supervising staff on their toes. Be warned, if it's busy they'll only let visitors stand and stare for five minutes max. I was lucky after work yesterday, the queues were almost non existent. But I suspect that word of mouth will spread fast, a bit like the Sultan's Elephant a couple of years ago, so pick your moment carefully. Brooklyn sunset will probably be particularly quiet at our end.