Paris Had a Moving Sidewalk in 1900, and a Thomas Edison Film Captured It in Action

It’s fair to say that few of us now mar­vel at mov­ing walk­ways, those stan­dard infra­struc­tur­al ele­ments of such util­i­tar­i­an spaces as air­port ter­mi­nals, sub­way sta­tions, and big-box stores. But there was a time when they astound­ed even res­i­dents of one of the most cos­mopoli­tan cities in the world. The inno­va­tion of the mov­ing side­walk demon­strat­ed at the Paris Expo­si­tion of 1900 (pre­vi­ous­ly seen here on Open Cul­ture when we fea­tured Lumière Broth­ers footage of that peri­od) com­mand­ed even Thomas Edis­on’s atten­tion. As Pale­o­fu­ture’s Matt Novak tells it at Smith­son­ian mag­a­zine, “Thomas Edi­son sent one of his pro­duc­ers, James Hen­ry White, to the Expo­si­tion and Mr. White shot at least 16 movies,” a clip of which footage you can see above.

White “had brought along a new pan­ning-head tri­pod that gave his films a new­found sense of free­dom and flow. Watch­ing the film, you can see chil­dren jump­ing into frame and even a man doff­ing his cap to the cam­era, pos­si­bly aware that he was being cap­tured by an excit­ing new tech­nol­o­gy while a fun nov­el­ty of the future chugs along under his feet.”

Novak also includes hand-col­ored pho­tographs from the Paris Exhi­bi­tion and quotes a New York Observ­er cor­re­spon­dent describ­ing the mov­ing side­walk as a “nov­el­ty” con­sist­ing of “three ele­vat­ed plat­forms, the first being sta­tion­ary, the sec­ond mov­ing at a mod­er­ate rate of speed, and the third at the rate of about six miles an hour.” Thus “the cir­cuit of the Expo­si­tion can be made with rapid­i­ty and ease by this con­trivance. It also affords a good deal of fun, for most of the vis­i­tors are unfa­mil­iar with this mode of tran­sit, and are awk­ward in its use.”

Novak fea­tures con­tem­po­rary images of the Paris Exhi­bi­tion’s mov­ing side­walk at Pale­o­fu­ture, found in the book Paris Expo­si­tion Repro­duced From the Offi­cial Pho­tographs. Its authors describe the trot­toir roulant as “a detached struc­ture like a rail­way train, arriv­ing at and pass­ing cer­tain points at stat­ed times” with­out a break. “In engi­neers’ lan­guage, it is an ‘end­less floor’ raised thir­ty feet above the lev­el of the ground, ever and ever glid­ing along the four sides of the square — a wood­en ser­pent with its tail in its mouth.” But the his­to­ry of the mov­ing walk­way did­n’t start in Paris: “In 1871 inven­tor Alfred Speer patent­ed a sys­tem of mov­ing side­walks that he thought would rev­o­lu­tion­ize pedes­tri­an trav­el in New York City,” as Novak notes, and the first one actu­al­ly built was built for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Expo­si­tion — but it cost a nick­el to ride and “was unde­pend­able and prone to break­ing down,” mak­ing Paris’ ver­sion the more impres­sive spec­ta­cle.

Still, the Columbian Expo­si­tion’s vis­i­tors must have got a kick out of glid­ing down the pier with­out hav­ing to do the walk­ing them­selves. You can learn more about this first mov­ing walk­way and its suc­ces­sors, the one at the Paris Exhi­bi­tion includ­ed, from the Lit­tle Car video above. How­ev­er much these ear­ly mod­els may look like quaint turn-of-the cen­tu­ry nov­el­ties, some still see in the tech­nol­o­gy gen­uine promise for the future of pub­lic tran­sit. Mov­ing walk­ways work well, writes Tree­hug­ger’s Lloyd Alter, “when the walk­ing dis­tance and time is just a bit too long.” And they remind us that “trans­porta­tion should be about more than just get­ting from A to B; it should be a plea­sure as well.” Parisians “kept the Eif­fel Tow­er from the exhi­bi­tion” — it had been built for the 1889 World’s Fair — but “it is too bad they did­n’t keep this, a sort of mov­ing High Line that is both trans­porta­tion and enter­tain­ment.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pris­tine Footage Lets You Revis­it Life in Paris in the 1890s: Watch Footage Shot by the Lumière Broth­ers

Watch Scenes from Belle Époque Paris Vivid­ly Restored with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence (Cir­ca 1890)

Beau­ti­ful, Col­or Pho­tographs of Paris Tak­en 100 Years Ago—at the Begin­ning of World War I & the End of La Belle Époque

Paris in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images from 1890: The Eif­fel Tow­er, Notre Dame, The Pan­théon, and More (1890)

How French Artists in 1899 Envi­sioned Life in the Year 2000: Draw­ing the Future

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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