50 years ago, computer expert Peter Samson started the ‘subway challenge’

Posted On Thu, April 20, 2017 By

Posted On Thu, April 20, 2017 By In History, Transportation

Peter Samson, standing in the center, and his teammates during the failed 1966 run. From the New York Herald-Tribune, via the Queens Borough Public Library

In May of 1940, electric railroad enthusiast Herman Rinke became the first person to tour the entire New York City subway system on a single token, putting in 25 some hours underground all for fun. After reading about Rinke’s journey, Peter Samson, a computer software engineer who later invented the world’s first video game Spacewar, decided to take a stab at making his own record. As the Times recounts, he formed the Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee (ANYSRC) to develop rules for the challenge. After one failed attempt in 1966, Samson, with the help of 15 volunteers and a computer program that tracked the fastest route, completed the trip in 25 hours, 50 minutes and 30 seconds on April 21, 1967. Since then, the subway challenge has taken off for puzzle and transit lovers worldwide.

Peter Samson, Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee, subway challenge
Peter Samson’s notebook used during the challenge

The official rules defined by Samson’s ANYSRC are broken down by three class. Variations of the challenge include riders traveling every line, but not necessarily the entire line (Class A), a full-system ride that requires a rider to stop at each station (Class B), or a skip-stop ride that only requires a rider to pass through each station (Class C). While rules of the ANYSRC challenge require rides to be completed on a single fare, the Guinness World Records, which recognizes Class B, allows for riders to transfer between scheduled lines by train or foot. No use of motor vehicles or personal transport, like bikes or skateboards, is allowed.

Peter Samson, Amateur New York Subway Riding Committee, subway challenge
A 1967 map of a subway station

To break the record, Samson wrote software that would find the quickest route and the team entered schedules into the PDP-6 computer at M.I.T. His plan included having two people compete for the record, while volunteers reported their progress by a payphone and then others would update the computer which would create a revised route for their journey. The two men who ran the route, George Mitchell and Andy Jennings, started at 2:43pm at the 168th Street station on the Jamaica el, and then clocked in at 4:30 the next afternoon in Pelham Bay Park.

Since then, various routes have been eliminated, others added, and some of the original rules have been amended. New versions of the subway challenge have been created, evolving into the Rapid Transit Challenge or the Ultimate Ride Challenge. New rules include making participants log the time the train doors open and close at each station, providing a time-stamped photograph or video proving they stopped at every station, and there must also be a witness at every station.

While many have come before him, the current record holder is Matthew Yahn. He traveled to each of the 469 subway stations on January 16, 2015, in just 21 hours, 49 minutes and 35 seconds. However, since the 7 Subway Extension opened in September of 2015, his record became invalid, so of course, he tried again. In the dead heat of summer, Yahn attempted a second go in September of 2016 and set off from the Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue Station at 2:20 a.m., and arrived at the end of his route at Flushing Main Street exactly 21 hours, 28 minutes and 14 seconds later.

Unfortunately, with the opening of the Second Avenue subway in January of this year, his record has become invalid yet again. Although Yahn has no plans to try to beat his record, he told Time Out NY, “Never say never.”

Tomorrow, the Transit Museum is hosting an event at Hunter College where a now-75-year-old Peter Samson will discuss his history with George Mitchell and Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione. The talk will last from 7:00 to 8:30pm–find out more information and purchase tickets here.

[Via NY Times]


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