In Brief

As the funeral carriage rolls past Westland Row on Great Brunswick Street, Bloom notices a sudden vigorous action in the street: "A pointsman's back straightened itself upright suddenly against a tramway standard by Mr Bloom's window." Pointsmen (called switchmen in the U.S.) were railway workers stationed at track junctions to pull on metal levers that opened one line or another to oncoming trains. In The Bloomsday Trams (2009), David Foley observes that "An example of a standard is now preserved at the national Transport Museum" (4), which is located inside the main gates of Howth Castle. 

Read More

"Points" (sometimes called switch rails, switch points, or point blades) are pairs of rails, tapered at the ends, that swing a few inches from side to side to guide train wheels into either of two sets of fixed rails. They are linked together to ensure that only one point rests against a fixed rail at any given time, and often some kind of indicator shows train drivers which set of tracks is currently open. Today many of these switches are powered by electric motors or by pneumatic or hydraulic actuators, but some still require a human being to shift the points manually, as evidently was the case in Dublin at the time represented in the novel. In the 1937 photograph displayed here, a pointsman appears to be manually performing a second function: indicating to a tram driver which line is open.

Seeing the pointsman's laborious effort, Bloom indulges one of his fancies about civic improvement: "Couldn't they invent something automatic so that the wheel itself much handier? Well but that fellow would lose his job then? Well but then another fellow would get a job making the new invention?" The idea that some device might make it possible for motormen to shift the track's points, eliminating the need for pointsmen, probably reflects Joyce's awareness of imminent technological change. The electrification of Dublin's trams had been completed in 1901, and Foley notes that "Forty automatic switches were installed at an unspecified date in 1904 and were operated by the driver sending a jolt of current on to a contact set in the road" (4). These electrical switches were not activated by a train's "wheel"––the mechanism that Bloom imagines––but that idea too seems to have some basis in physical reality. So-called "trailable switches" allow trains on either of two converging lines (i.e., moving toward the single set of tracks) to move the points with their wheels.

Bloom is not simply daydreaming, then. He is applying technological developments that he has heard of or read about to the practical business of moving around the city––just as he will do a bit later later in Hades, when he suggests that Dublin should have funeral trams as in Milan. His thoughts about workers losing their jobs and other kinds of jobs being created is of course a staple of the modern industrialized economy, often referred to these days as capitalism's effect of "creative destruction."

Although Joyce does not have Bloom reflect on it, another kind of economic reality was involved in the job of "pointsmen." Foley observes that "The tramway company employed boys" to do this physical labor (4). Slote confirms this information, quoting from Michael Corcoran's Through Streets Broad and Narrow: A History of Dublin Trams: "The pointsmen were frequently boys..., hopefuls for future employment as motormen or conductors" (70). Corcoran's book agrees with Foley's also on the installation of electrically controlled track points: the DUTC experimented with these new devices in 1903 and installed forty of them in 1904.

JH 2023
1937 photograph said to show a tramway pointsman on Nassau Street, in central Dublin. Source: www.pinterest.com.
Manually operated switch on a Finnish rail line, with arrow indicating the present setting of the points. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Caricature of a pointsman looking confusedly at his "standard" in the 19 October 1872 issue of Punch magazine. Source: joyceimages.com.