50 Years Ago, a Computer Pioneer Got a New York Subway Race Rolling
Fifty years ago, Peter Samson, one of the inventors of Spacewar, considered the world’s first video game, began another craze underground.
Inspired by the story of a Flushing High School senior who a decade earlier traversed the entire 400-mile New York City subway system on a single 15-cent token, Mr. Samson and his college classmates harnessed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s embryonic mainframe computer in their race to reach every station and in record time.
The confluence of Mr. Samson’s three obsessions — trains, computers and New York City — evolved into the Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee and a bevy of eager contestants who have periodically sought an even faster circumnavigation of the system. So far, six have made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Mr. Samson, who is 75 and was a computer software pioneer, will reminisce about his subway adventure with Michael Miscione, the Manhattan borough historian, at 7 p.m. Friday at Hunter College.
“Peter used M.I.T.’s most advanced computer — a mainframe about the size of a passenger elevator — to calculate the most efficient route to ride the entire subway system in the least amount of time,” Mr. Miscione said. “In their wild attempt to break the existing riding record they employed pay phones, runners and a teletype hookup between a makeshift data center in Midtown Manhattan and the mainframe in Cambridge, Mass.”
To what end?
“There are two points I’d mention,” Mr. Samson said this week of his team’s record-breaking ride. “First is simply the competitive aspect: Can I combine my computer skills and physical endurance to beat someone else? Second, more satisfying in the long run, is the sense of mastery over a large and complex system: the New York subway.”
Mr. Samson was on spring break from college in 1966 when he noticed a blurb on the back of a subway map about an unnamed “Flushing youth” (later identified as Jerome Moses) who had gotten his money’s worth by paying one fare to ride every route on the system — or about as long as a train trip from New York to Pittsburgh.
It took him 25 hours and 36 minutes. (In 1940, another buff, Herman Rinke, had taken a similar tour as a “sentimental gesture,” he said, before the three lines were unified.)
“I had previously used the computer to solve some small subway-network puzzles — minimum-transfer routes, for example,” Mr. Samson recalled, “and suddenly saw a way to put all of my loves together: computers, trains and New York.”
But this was the mid-60s, an era well before cellphones and laptops. Digital technology was so new that it was big news that year when a 27-year-old Queens man became the first parking ticket scofflaw tracked down by a computer search. (He pleaded guilty to 26 unpaid tickets.)
Using a computer to simulate a route, Mr. Samson applied Samson’s Rule: travel takes one minute a station, a half-minute a stop, five minutes to cross the East River, one minute to change platforms and five minutes during the day for a train to come. He estimated the complete ride at 25½ hours.
A six-man party (Mr. Samson, George Mitchell, Andy Jennings, Jeff Dwork, Dave Anderson and Dick Gruen) began at 6:30 a.m. from the Pacific Street station in Brooklyn. But when they finally pulled into the platform at Pelham Bay Park after a little more than 25 hours and 57 minutes, reporters confronted them with an unexpected question: How come they hadn’t done as well as Geoffrey Arnold had?
They had never heard of Mr. Arnold, but apparently in 1963 he completed his version of the circuit faster (variously reported as 24 or 25 hours and 56 minutes). Worse, he was from Harvard.
“I decided to take it on a little more seriously,” Mr. Samson recalled.
With his competitive juices fired up, he got serious. He collaborated with Mr. Arnold on official rules and prepared for a full-fledged computer-driven record-breaking attempt with 15 volunteers on April 19, 1967.
“All the schedules were entered into the PDP-6 computer at M.I.T., and I wrote software that would find what nominally would be the quickest route,” Mr. Samson said. “The plan was that as a party of two people would actually compete for the record attempt, other participants would report their progress by pay phone, we would update the computer, and according to the new circumstances it would print out a revised route for the rest of the run. Then yet other individuals, positioned around the subway system and standing near pay phones, would be called with the revised information to hand to the party on the run as they came by.”
By the official Class A rules, which required riding every mile of right of way, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jennings started at 2:43 p.m. at the 168th Street station on the Jamaica el and clocked in the next afternoon just after 4:30 in Pelham Bay Park. They completed the route in 25 hours, 50 minutes and 30 seconds.
Since then, some routes have been eliminated and some rules amended. Armed with better software, more experience and competing in other versions of the race, six competitors have set Guinness Book records.
What type of person does this?
“Someone who likes systems and networks, routes and timetables,” Mr. Samson said. For himself, he said, “I have indelible memories; I would not have done anything else with that time in retrospect.”
The fastest time so far was set last year when Matthew Ahn, a 25-year-old lawyer, who held the previous record, finished in 21 hours, 28 minutes and 14 seconds, including the new Flushing Line extension.
“I think the figures we are seeing now are close to the minimum possible,” Mr. Samson said. “And with the Second Avenue line having opened, the current record may be hard to match.”