The Vanishing Red Car is an interactive exhibit prototype that tells the story of the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles. A transit system that was larger in 1920 than most of the world’s metros are today. However, by 1960 it was completely dismantled.

Final Prototype

Music By Nils Frahm


Before I could start ideating on how I would present the story of the Pacific Electric Railway, I had to fully understand it myself. While there are many books on the subject, few exists at local libraries, and even fewer are still in print. Fortunately, I found some great deals on eBay and quickly amassed a little Pacific Electric historical library.


Founded in 1901, the Pacific Electric Railway developed fast. However, its goal was less about public transit and more of a real estate strategy by founder, Henry E. Huntington. The system was unprofitable by 1930, and ticket price fixing lead to frequent infrastructure issues. It was usually faster to bike.

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My goal for this project was to illustrate the scale of the system and how it changed over time. After looking at countless maps, I thought it would be the best static view. A wheel or dial could allow users to change through time while a second screen gave significant historical information.

Prototype One


There was confusion as to how the map view related to the history view. It was clear the information needed to be broad and not about specific routes. Additionally, the digital time wheel didn’t feel like a fitting input device for a story about early twentieth century rail infrastructure.

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Control Surface

Now focusing on Analog inputs, I researched the industrial controls used in the Pacific Electric Red Cars. A large dial and industrial illuminated push buttons felt like an appropriate fit.

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Researching industrial pushbuttons was a dream come true (serious). This was a rare opportunity to play with the buttons I always wanted to press as a kid, but (usually) resisted. A huge thanks to McMaster-Carr for all the guidance.

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The Button I ended up going with utilized a 12v incandescent lamp. While I loved the soft illumination, I had to use a series of resistors to avoid burning up the 5v Arduino.

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The Problem with Dials

I found it difficult to find a rotary knob that wasn’t for stereos or DJ equipment. I even took a trip to the wonderful Apex Electronics in Burbank, CA. I figured it was best if I just made it myself.

Control Box Build

The green button is for start and restart, and the two red buttons swap between map views. I added this map toggle after feedback I received that it would great to see how the system compared to the current highway and transit infrastructure.

Books: Henry E. Huntington and the Creation of Southern California, Red Car Days, Pacific Electric Stations, Pacific Electric Volumes 1 - 3, Cars of Pacific Electric Vol 1, 1953 Route Map

Tools Used: After Effects, Arduino Mega, Cinema 4D, Illustrator, Madmapper, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, Processing, Sketch App

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