When George Eliot wrote ‘The tube-journey can never lend much to picture and narrative,’ she was not making an observant remark about commuting on the Underground. She was developing a thought she’d had of travellers of the future being ‘shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle’. She was writing in 1861, and the world’s first Underground, the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863.
Two years before her musings (in her introduction to Felix Holt, the Radical), the London Pneumatic Despatch Company was founded to send packages and mailbags from Holborn to Gresham Street.
The Central London Railway, from Bank to Shepherd’s Bush opened in 1900. From its fixed fare, it gained the nickname the Twopenny Tube. Unlike the original Metropolitan Railway (built by the cut-and-cover method) it was a true tube-railway, like the world’s first electric underground, the City and South London Railway, opened in 1890. Its tubes had a diameter of 10ft 6in, and its small upholstered carriages were nicknamed padded cells.
I’m always annoyed when people use tube for underground lines that are not deep-tunnelled. They did so in talking of the bomb at Parsons Green — opened in 1880 as part of the District Railway, which is there above ground. Still, people will do it and I can’t stop them.
Tube has been a productive word in recent decades. Oddly, boob tube, meaning in the Sixties the (idiotic) television, by a play on words a decade later, also came to designate a woman’s strapless top. Since 2005, YouTube, the video-sharing website, has grown like Jack’s beanstalk. From 2008, Channel 4 has been showing popular internet clips on its programme Rude Tube, which is not particularly rude.
Our standards might be going down the tube (or tubes) since 1963, and we have even lost the cathode-ray tube from our televisions, but test-tube babies (foreseen by that name in the 1930s and born since 1978) have proliferated and, as with so many scientific discoveries, we know we cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.