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Walk This Way: The History of the Moving Sidewalk

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Authors like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein have long envisioned a future where the automobile gives way to massive, high-speed moving walkways. Some of them merely zoom commuters around cities, while others, like Heinlein’s "mechanized roads,” could take people from Cleveland all the way to Cincinnati.

The moving sidewalk is familiar to travelers in the real world, too, but smaller and limited to controlled environments like airports and train stations. They lack the grandeur and the game-changing status that futurists once envisioned, but that isn’t to say that people haven’t tried for larger, longer, faster moving sidewalks. Inventors had very real plans for the moving sidewalk that rivaled anything Wells dreamed up, but were undone by technical limitations and wary politicians and riders that science fiction authors could simply write their way around.

A Walking Tour of Moving Sidewalks

The history of real-world moving sidewalks goes back to a New Jersey inventor/wine merchant named Alfred Speer, who received the first patent for one in 1871. The first one operated in the U.S. was built for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Operated by the Columbian Movable Sidewalk Company, which charged 5 cents for a ride, it ran almost the entire length of the 3,500-foot pier that many guests arrived at after taking a scenic steamship trip from downtown to the fairgrounds. Riders could stand or walk on the first platform, which traveled at about two miles per hour, or step up onto a second parallel platform, which ran at four miles per hour and had benches. Running at full capacity, the walkway could ferry 31,680 passengers per hour. Its life was short, though, and it was destroyed by a fire the following year.

The wooden moving pavement ('Trottoir Roulant') at the Exposition Universal in Paris, 1900 /

In the early years of the next century, Speer and Max Schmidt, who designed a moving walkway for the 1900 Exposition Universal in Paris, both proposed their own versions of the moving sidewalk in Manhattan to relieve some of the foot traffic on New York City’s crowded streets. Speer’s plan called for an elevated system of three parallel walkways running along Broadway that would move passengers at up to 19 mph. Speer’s system had one stationary platform for boarding and two moving ones where riders could either stand, walk or even have a seat in one of a few enclosed “parlor cars” that had drawing rooms for ladies, and space for men to sit and smoke. Despite building a working model and finding support in the city government and state legislature, Speer’s project was repeatedly killed by the governor.

Schmidt’s vision for a Brooklyn Bridge moving walkway consisted of a loop system with four platforms, one for boarding and three others that moved at increasing speeds, the fastest of which ran at 10 mph. Schmidt planned for the system to run constantly, so passengers wouldn’t have to wait to board and no momentum would be lost on stopping and starting the platforms. Schmidt and the individuals and groups who proposed similar systems in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., all eventually saw their plans crumble under their own novelty. Maintenance and breakdown concerns, the question of what passengers were supposed to do in the rain or snow, and the familiarity and reliability of buses and subway trains all helped doom the urban moving sidewalk.

Let’s Try This Again

A half-century later, the moving sidewalk reared its head again when smaller-scale versions showed up in sprawling airports and train stations. They’re hardly the stuff of Wells and Schmidt, and are usually just a single platform moving slowly from Point A to Point B just a few hundred yards away.

The first of these simpler sidewalks got moving in May 1954 at the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad’s Erie station in Jersey City, NJ. Built by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., the “Speedwalk’s” 5½-ft wide platform ran 277 feet up an incline used to exit the station, at a top speed of 1.5 mph. It was a relief to many riders used walking up the exit hall, which had earned the nickname “Cardiac Alley.”

While the Speedwalk might have prevented a few injuries, the first moving sidewalk installed at an airport - at Love Field in Dallas in 1958 - infamously caused several. One person was even killed. Early in the sidewalk’s operation, several people got clothing or a foot stuck where the conveyor met solid ground and disappeared into the floor to loop back. A dog suffered a broken leg. A seven-year-old boy got his t-shirt and hand sucked in and lost most of the skin on his fingers. As the boy’s mother tried to free him, her clothing got caught too, and her skirt and slip were pulled clean off. She continued to struggle with her son in nothing but a leather coat until the machine was turned off.

Two years later, an accident resulted in death. On New Year’s Day in 1960, a two-year-old girl, fascinated by the moving sidewalk, broke away from her mother and waddled over for a closer look. Her coat sleeve got caught at the edge, and her left hand, wrist and forearm were pulled below the floor. A police officer rushed to cut off her clothes to release her. He later told newspapers that her coat was pulled so tight around her chest that he couldn’t even get his knife underneath it.

Not So Fast

Designs and safety measures for the moving sidewalk improved, and its use spread to most airports over the next few decades. Some engineers even took another stab at larger, faster versions. Prototype high-speed walkways have been tried out in Paris metro stations in the 1980s and the early 2000s, but both systems were shut down due to mechanical complexity, unreliability, and passenger accidents.

While the idea of quickly floating over the Brooklyn Bridge or across Ohio on a moving walkway is exciting, there seems to be a practical limit to how fast a person can travel on a moving platform without losing their balance and toppling over. Fast, car-less travel over great distances is maybe best left to airplanes and high-speed rail lines. For the shorter moving sidewalks we have now, we don’t necessarily need speed and all the mechanical and safety problems that go with it.

The airport moving sidewalks often slow us down, versus walking normally, because people stand around or block the platform with their bags. The future of the people mover, perhaps, isn’t in a mechanical road that takes us from one town to another, but just an airport moving walkway that isn't treated like a leisure cruise. As Jerry Seinfeld used to say, "It's not a ride!"

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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