Pneumatic Tubes

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Pneumatic Tubes are networks of hollow tubes through which cylindrical containers carrying small items (i.e. mail) are sent, driven by the force of compressed air, which is usually generated by an engine or water. These tubes can be constructed in any number of ways, using various metals and wood.

The Beginnings: Pressurized Air and Patents

Although pneumatic tubes in their physical form were not invented until the late 1800s, the idea that pressurized air could be used to propel objects through empty vessels has been explored since antiquity. One of the earliest instances of such research occurred in Ancient Greece, when Hero of Alexandria completed his treatise on pneumatics. Exactly when The Pneumatics (or Pneumatica) of Hero of Alexandria was published is still up for debate, though most scholars agree that he lived in the first century BC. Regardless, Hero of Alexandria’s Pneumatica assumed that “…air is matter. The air when set in motion becomes wind, (for wind is nothing else but air in motion)” (Hero of Alexandria 2). He found that “if from the application of force of the particles of air be divided and a vacuum be produced larger than is natural, the particles unite again afterwards; for bodies will have a rapid motion through a vacuum, where there is nothing to obstruct or repel them, until they are in contact” (Hero of Alexandria 3). In other words, air is excessively dense yet its particles are extremely flexible; when it is compressed, it will fall into empty spaces from the pressure exerted upon its particles. This creates a “vacuum” which, as Hero of Alexandria explores in his book, can put objects and machines in motion by the force of air.

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Fig. 1: The original, rectangular pneumatic "tube." / Fig. 2: Albert Brisbane's improvement, and the tube we recognize today.

While none of the nineteenth-century patents or articles dealing with pneumatic tubes cite Hero of Alexandria’s treatise, one can infer that his research informed the workings of this dead medium over one thousand years later. In a way, the pneumatic tube is a remediation of Hero of Alexandria’s early pneumatic devices. But even though we can trace pneumatics into antiquity, the actual “invention” of the pneumatic tube has a history that is complicated and confusing. The pneumatic tube’s invention cannot be traced back to a sole “inventor,” but rather a baffling hodge-podge of patents and improvements. This surge of innovation speaks to the moment of mass invention and production associated with the late 1800s and the Industrial Revolution; there are literally hundreds of patents involving pneumatic tubes between 1870 and 1900 alone.

Despite this puzzling array of information, one man is credited with “inventing” the pneumatic tube that coiled itself ‘round the world: Albert Brisbane. An American from New York City, Brisbane patented the “Improved Pneumatic Tube for Transporting Goods” (U.S. Patent No. 91513; Dated June 22, 1869). The language of this patent makes it plain that he did not invent this technology, but instead made vast improvements upon the original, which consisted of an oddly shaped “rectangular pneumatic tube or box, containing a hollow cylinder, running on rails, for the transportation of mails and merchandise” (U.S. Patent No. 91513). It is no wonder, then, why several newspapers at the time accredited Brisbane with inventing the pneumatic tube – he essentially remediated a rectangular box with rails into a pragmatic “round pneumatic tube, containing a hollow sphere or ball” for transporting goods (U.S. Patent No. 91513).

From the perspective of media archaeology, one can sense that this remediation had strong economic motivations. Basic physics reveals that a spherical object sent down a round tube will create less friction than a cylinder sent down a rectangular “tube” on rails. Time is clearly of the essence here; this technology would have been utterly useless had it not been extremely timesaving. Additionally, Brisbane’s patent addresses preventing air leakage by narrowing the sides of the hollow spheres, further emphasizing timesaving strategies. Less air leakage meant more air pressure applied to a narrower space, pushing the object down at much quicker speeds. And of course, one cannot forget the strongest economic motivation in improving a medium: money. Brisbane’s patent goes the extra mile by making suggestions for the “cheapest” structure of his pneumatic tube.

Limitations: The Tube Strikes Back

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"The Pneumatic Tube of the Future" from New York to Boston (The Atlanta Constitution, 1896). Though many saw "great" possibilities for the pneumatic tube, endeavors like this were never realized due to practical limitations of the technology.

Like any medium, the pneumatic tube has certain limitations within itself. We cannot then just focus on the people and events surrounding the medium, but also the traits of the material object itself – traits that will fight back. It is plain that the physical (the visible and tangible) are favored in this medium, since a physical object (i.e. a written letter) must be placed within a “carrier” which is then sent through a tube to a certain destination. This clearly had its advantages: quick communication over short distances that had a personal touch to boot. At the same time, however, this meant that restrictions had to be placed upon the object itself and where it could be sent. Initially, before realizing the drawbacks of the technology, many imagined that long pipelines of pneumatic tubes could be constructed from say, New York to California. Soon enough, people realized that the “pneumatic plan…proved to be practicable when applied to short distances,” such as within a metropolitan area (Chicago Daily Tribune). This realization also arose out of economic hindrances; a short central line cost £14,000 to build in London in 1860, before the surge of popularity in pneumatic tubes that followed their improvements. Taking this into consideration, one can only imagine how much a fully functioning pneumatic tube system would cost to build and maintain nowadays.

The length of the tubes did not only inhibit communication, but additionally pieces of mail had to fit within a pneumatic tube parcel or otherwise travel by regular post. While this limitation may not seem too pressing, since other avenues of quick communication were available at the time, it actually had significant impacts. In 1925, the New York Times reported one particularly dramatic instance, wherein a Parisian man killed himself after his girlfriend failed to send him a letter by pneumatic tube. The Times claimed that when this man parted from “an English girl whom he loved, she said she would either send him a ‘pneumatique’ (special delivery) message within three hours or never see him again.” This woman made the unfortunate mistake of placing the letter “in an envelope too large for the Paris pneumatic tube system for fast mail,” and it “arrived by ordinary post too late to prevent the suicide” (New York Times).

This medium was also problematic in that it literally clogged up during times of high traffic. Frequently a parcel would become “arrested in its course, causing an obstruction, the locality of which it is very difficult to ascertain” (Scientific American). This Scientific American article from 1873, entitled “Novel Mode of Locating Obstructions in Pneumatic Tubes” describes a method of isolating pneumatic tube obstructions utilizing sound waves. Another article in Scientific American, “Pneumatic Tubes,” outlines how the tubes could be unclogged: “…the whole force of the compressed air is then turned into the pipe. If that be insufficient, a head of water fifty feet in height is added” to remove the obstruction. The fact that this medium clogged speaks to the sheer popularity of pneumatic tubes, and simultaneously indicates just how impractical they were. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon is reminiscent of high Internet “traffic” in the modern world. Though wireless signals and telephone lines aren’t physically “clogged” with parcels, servers do become overwhelmed with requests, slowing down the system as a whole. (Though it would probably be a really, really bad idea to shoot water into your router.)

Pneumatic Mail in Europe

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From Scientific American 1884 Paris's Pneumatic Tubes and operator. One pair of tubes indicates out going leters and other welcomes the arriving ones.

The Tubes Pneumatique of Paris date as far back as 1867, but the pneumatic system was originally introduced in London in 1858 (Morss). The first tubes connected the Bourse or stock exchange and the Grand Hotel beginning what would become an enormous system several hundred miles in tubes (Scientific American 1884). Like the system used in America, the tube is filled with compressed air in a partial vacuum. Instead of using air pumps or any engines, the Parisian system worked using power from the city's reservoir. Originally there were three large connected iron plated vessels that could hold 1,200 gallons each. The first vessel was filled with water, which was pushed into the other two vessels, which were filled with air. The air becomes compressed and once a valve was opened the air escaped rushing with force into the tubes (London Engineer).

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Prague's central office featuring its historical working pneumatic post system.

The height of pneumatic post in Paris was in the 1930's where a letter, which the French called a pneu could get anywhere in the city in about an hour. 240 miles of tubing, just a few meters under the ground, created the net like system that laid just underneath Paris, carrying letter at an average speed of 40 m.p.h. The pneumatic systems were also created in the French cities Lyons and Marseilles as well as in Berlin since 1866 and Vienna since 1875(Morss). After World War II the system was expanded and modernized but eventually began to decline and the Parisian pneumatic postal system ended in 1984. Now Parisians are offered "same day" delivery post express to replace the pneumatique, which costs two to three times more than sending a pneu, which would arrive not just in the same day but in an hour or at maximum two hours (Vinocur).

The Prague pneumatic post was completed in 1899 with 60 kilometers that could transport letter, documents, and small parcel at 30 m.p.h. Prague's pneumatic post is the only working historical model left in the world. Today not much has changed except the number of parcel sent which use to number in the millions each year and now has dwindled into thousands every month. The post employs fifteen people altogether¬– nine workers and six dispatchers. Incoming parcels are indicated by a blinking red light and outgoing parcels by a green light. Every parcel must make a stop on Jindrisska street as the network is star shaped (Drake).

Telegrams vs. Pneumatic Post

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A female dispatcher sending Antoine's letter via the pnuematique from Stolen Kisses

The telegram and pneumatic post are in many ways very similar. Both send messages floating on various airwaves, but it was because of the traffic over the electrical lines that pneumatic telegraph was quickly and widely popular in Paris. For a while to relieve the heavy pressure on telegraphs, telegrams were delivered by couriers on bicycles, every fifteen minutes to and from the Bourse during business hours. After a line was created connecting the Bourse and the Grand Hotel, approximately 700 meters, the next line connected the Grand Hotel to central station on rue de Grenelle St. Germain and that station back to the Bourse. New lines connecting major stations grew rapidly and thousands of telegrams were sent over pneumatic tubes daily (Morss).

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The underground tubes racing below the city along coordinating streets from Stolen Kisses

Telegrams and pneus were responsible for informing generations of births, deaths, marriages, lottery winners, and broken dates. Pneus were best used sending theatre tickets or contracts, which could not only hold small pieces of paper but could be written in someone's own handwriting (Vinocur). Telegrams had their own language of quickness and saturated content because of the cost per word. As 'tele-' means far in Greek and 'gram' means written or writing, 'pneuma' means soul or vital spirit. In François Truffaut's 1968 film Baisers Volès (Stolen Kisses), a letter is sent through the rattling pipes in the sewers. The film follows the letter as it place in a slot labeled, Pneumatiques and passes through the hands of female dispatchers and placed in the tubes. The film follows the pipes containing the small letter as it races through the underground tunnels that coordinate with the above streets. The pneu passes through the underground Rue de Richelieu and the Champs Elysees before arriving at it's destination, only to be responsible for uniting two unusual lovers. Pneumatic tubes held a spiritual meaning. In theology, "pneumatology" was the belief in "intermediary spirits" whether between person and person or a person and God (Steinweg).

Pneumatic Scandal in NYC

Although the company was unsuccessful in creating a permanent method of transportation, the case of the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company in NYC is of utmost interest in that it brought into the realm of law and politics the problems of a pneumatic system. The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company rode on an amendment to an old bill, to begin building their tunnels without attracting particular attention to their project. Although they didn’t run into problems initially they would soon find them selves in a legal battle. The New York Times reported, “The mayor has some doubts as to whether the legislature can give a company the right to excavate beneath a street, and thus, in some measure, to place both public and private property in danger.” (New York Times 2) The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company even released propaganda in order to create positive spin, to help with the government blockage. This incident widely publicized pneumatics and got way more coverage in newspapers. The Beach Company published a pamphlet through S.W. Green Printer that resembles a press packet, including detailed description of the system and articles from other newspapers, which gave the company a positive spin. The fact that the pamphlet doesn’t even mention the Beach Company until well into it, gives the whole thing an air of deception. This problem indicated a severe limitation in pneumatic systems, in that the necessity of constructing on both public and private property is inherent to the design of the system.

Pneumatic Transportation

What stands out about the pneumatic railway is the fact that it is essentially exactly the same as the pneumatic post, except constructed on a different scale.

In an editorial appearing in the Boston Transcript May 23, 1870 and aptly titled ‘A Peep Into The Future’ a relative newbie to the world of pneumatic mail described the confusion that transpired during his first encounter with the newfangled system. While in Glasgow he found that he must have made an error in a telegram he sent to London. When he requests to see the telegram he is baffled by the fact that his message is in fact not where he dropped it off, but in the London Post Office. After requesting it be returned he is amazed that it is back in his hands only five minutes later. The thought process that occurred next is what is of more interest, then his general amazement with a new technology. “If I could only go to Boston with the same relative speed, you might count on my passing an evening every week at 124 Beacon Street, and returning home to sleep. Who know but we may be conveyed in this marvelous manner before many years?” (Chicago Tribune 0_1). The immediate leap to using the pneumatic mail system for transportation (to pass evenings at the home of poet Charles Stoddard) was a quick one for someone unfamiliar with pneumatic systems.

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Scientific American on October 5, 1861 featured an editorial that described the construction of a Pneumatic Dispatch system intended to carry packages quickly through a quarter mile tube into London. “Two gentleman occupied the carriages during the first trip. They lay on their backs on mattresses with horsecloths for coverings, and appeared to be perfectly satisfied with their journey.” (Scientific American 209) I think that the severity of the public’s obsession with putting people into pneumatic tubes can be exemplified by the fact that the first time that this particular system was used at all, it was not for used the purpose it was built for. This unintended use of the pneumatic dispatch system, in a big way overshadowed its intended use, which would soon be developed into the Pneumatic Railway.

Why was it about pneumatic tubes that caused people to want to jump inside and use them for travel, especially since steam engine trains were already invented? I think one major reason can be gathered from the fact that railway plans were nearly exclusively for use in metropolitan areas. No one, to my knowledge suggested a transcontinental pneumatic railway. They were seen as a way to put trains underground in highly congested areas, due to the fact that it would be problematic to put steam engines underground. Additionally I would contend that pneumatic transit was appealing due to a certain mystique that must have come along with watching something be moved by an invisible force.

Is it a coincidence that the subways of NYC actually resemble the Pneumatic Railway? It’s hard to claim that modern NYC subways wouldn’t use cylindrical tunnels had it not been for it’s predecessor. However, the technology for building steel tunnels, patented by Joseph Dixon for the Pneumatic Railway, undoubtedly was referenced by modern subway builders (Dixon).

"The Pneumatic Age"

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The public’s obsession with pneumatic tubes was undeniable. An ad for Luna Park even boasted a pneumatic tube ride, which would project the rider at speeds up to 3,500 feet per second. This was a prime example that the public’s interest in pneumatic tubes was not restricted to it’s utility as a mail system.

An article from the Chicago Tribune read “People passing the vicinity of the corner of Washington and LaSalle streets yesterday might have notice a peculiar mechanical operation going on, and on inquiry would have been told that a “pneumatic tube” was being constructed…”(Chicago Trubune 0_3) This first person account records what must have been a very odd experience of seeing these tubes actually being installed. This construction and placement of tubes made tangible the conceptual idea of a media network, in a very physical way. Interestingly it is currently popular to create more clean networks, which aren’t realized physically, we have adopted wireless networks, in lieu of cumbersome tubes. However, even though they don’t manifest them in the same way we are in fact using pneumatic tubes sending breaths of information as we send text messages and emails through our PDAs.

The comic depicting a man in an empty hotel room may be amusing if only for the fact that it depicts inflatable furniture, a technology that was in fact realized later on. (Chicago Daily Tribune 36) What is most important however is that the pneumatic system has found its way not only into a new facet of human life, more particularly the comic, a lens through which to view the world. Also interesting is the fact that all this pneumatic hype has found its way into a very unpneumatic newspaper.

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What is probably most captivating about the concept of using pneumatic post to send food, appears in the very last sentence of the article from Modern Mechanix Magazine, “the fame of German women for tasty cooking may soon pass into obscurity.” (Modern Mechanix 41) Here the idea of what it means to be a German woman is being modified by an adaptation of a media technology. What would German women be if they weren’t great cooks? The same question can be applied to mail sent through pneumatic tubes, what will your message mean if it is delivered so far from you and so rapidly, but still in an analog way? Unlike the telegraph, which digitizes messages, the pneumatic letter retains analog meaning, which could range from your handwriting to the type of stationary you use. How do these meanings change when they rush away and are made separate and apart from you at amazing speeds?

On November 10, 1893 The Washington Post declared “The present era is likely to be known to history as the pneumatic age. What with pneumatic tubes and pneumatic tires pneumatic bells and pneumatic guns…” These are all accurate and categorical list of several inventions all revolving around wind. However, the Post makes a significant jump when it continues “…to say nothing of pneumatic orators in congress, the wind works seem to be coming to the front.” (The Washington Post 4) While the list of pneumatic was clearly intended to point out the pneumatic trend in recent history, the article takes an even more significant leap when it uses pneumatics as a context to describe politicians, an entity completely separate from the technology. Although I can’t begin to chronicle history of the saying “windy speaker” This article makes blatant the way pneumatic technology began to dictate the way people viewed their world.

Ghastly Remnants of a Dead Medium (Post-Victorian/Modern)

Today, you cannot walk into a post office and ask to express-mail something using pneumatic tubes. However, this technology has not become completely obsolete. Pneumatic tubes are still in use on an extremely small, localized scale, in many banks and large stores for instance. Old buildings still carry traces of the Victorian era with constructed, yet unused, pneumatic tubes. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were numerous inventions utilizing pneumatic tubes for hospitals. These were created namely for nurses to send specimens, blood samples, prescriptions and chart copies to a floor clerk, who would dispatch them appropriately (Allen).

In 2001, the New York Times published an article entitled “Underground Mail Road; Modern Plans for All-but-Forgotten Delivery System” by Robin Pogrebin. The Times reported here that a man named Randolph Stark wished to revive the pneumatic tube postal system beneath New York City, unused for nearly a century; clearly, this dream was never realized. What’s interesting to note, however, is the language still used around this dead medium, and how it truly is seen as a ghastly, unexplored presence that still lurks beneath our city’s streets. This twenty-first century article also sheds light on why the pneumatic tube mail system stopped: “The service continued in most cities until 1918, when the high costs of maintenance – $17,000 per mile per year – were thought to be impractical for the small volume of mail transported” (Pogrebin). Ultimately, the pneumatic tube’s impracticalities, limitations, and economic unfeasibility led to its “death” as a medium, though it still lies dormant underneath city streets worldwide.

Limited Rebirth

Many hospitals, including Stanford Hospital, have found use for pneumatic tubes in the modern era. Today many medial centers use tubes to transport blood and tissue samples from patient areas to hospital labs for testing. This system has become vital to the working of hospitals as they increase in size. The tubes allow them to reduce low-level staff costs as well as increase the speed at which biological samples are able to be tested. This is particularly useful for materials that must be kept at specific temperatures or have other rapid expiration conditions.

These modern pneumatic tubes have been designed with modern innovations such as digital monitoring systems and less jarring stops. This allows such sensitive materials to be transferred without risk of damage.

Works Cited

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  • Allen, Rex W. "Designed for Nursing." The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 64, No. 2. (Feb., 1964), pp. 91-93.
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