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It Really Is a Series of Tubes



Molly Wright Steenson goes in-depth into one of the largest information networks of its day, the pneumatic tubes, and provides an interesting historical comparison to the development of modern digital networks - the challenges faced by constructing these networks, the limits of what could be sent through these networks and the impact they had on communication as a whole.


Molly Wright Steenson is Senior Associate Dean for Research in the College of Fine Arts and the K&L Gates Associate Professor in Ethics and Computational Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University and the School of Design. Her focus is on the intersection of design, architecture, and AI. She is the author of Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Designed the Digital Landscape.

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Steenson: By day I tend to work a lot on questions of contemporary design. I'm a design professor at Carnegie Mellon. I'm also the K&L Gates associate professor of ethics and computational technologies, which is a lot of words to say I focus on questions of AI and ethics like some of you do. I'm also the Research Dean for the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon, so I get a chance to talk to people across the university about a number of different things. Before all of this, I got a PhD in architecture, and along the way, I discovered some stuff - if there are panels here about modern data architectures, these are not modern data architectures that I'm going to talk about today. If there are talks about modern computer science, that's not what I do either, at least not in this talk.

Just very quickly, these are the two books that have nothing to do with pneumatic tubes, but for people who do care about things like patterns and software and where those came from, the first book, "Architectural Intelligence," covers that as well as the pre-history of the MIT Media Lab, and "Bauhaus Futures" takes a look at the 100-year birthday of the Bauhaus Design School in Germany and says, if the Bauhaus were around today, what would keep it up at night? Turns out it's questions of race, gender, computation, cyborgs, and design teaching. This is Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. Ted Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010, and he's known for something that he said in 2006: "Again, the internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes."

The internet is a series of tubes. He was heading a committee about managing the internet, and it went viral because of his sheer seeming ineptitude about what it took to run the internet, that it's a series of tubes. He was arguing against net neutrality. Not surprisingly, it became a meme. I want to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Senator Ted Stevens was right. He was just off by a century, because I think it really is a series of tubes, and pneumatic tubes are magical. For about the next 40 minutes or so, I'm going to tell you why I think so, and hopefully, I can convince you to join me in this appreciation I have from them.

When I'm talking about pneumatic tubes, I'm talking about things that looked like this and that were used for telegraph services first and ran under the streets of cities. They were used for first-class mail in the United States. They were used within buildings like this one - this is a telegraph office in Germany. They were used to move money and orders and paperwork through buildings, so essentially, they were physical information processors. They were used to communicate very quickly, the quickest way you could get a message across the city. I'll talk more about that in a second. They were used even to move people for a brief period of time, and I'm talking about more than a century before Elon Musk championed the ideas.

There are things that you cannot digitize today, some of those things are medication and tissue, and that is why pneumatic tubes run through the walls and under the streets of major hospitals, and they give you money and doggy treats at the bank, which is how I first encountered pneumatic tubes as a kid in Saint Paul, Minnesota. If you ever went to the First Bank on Grand Avenue with your parents and you drove up to make the deposit and goes through pneumatic tubes, and it comes back with doggy treats if you had the dog in the car, it's pretty close to magic.

Pneumatic Tube Systems

I'm going to start by talking about urban pneumatic tube systems, and this is a story about tech transfer and about communication, and contingency, and various ways about systems that you build that take the place of other systems when they're not doing a fast-enough job. Pneumatic tubes started in London in 1853 and moved from city to city. People were pretty open about sharing the technology, although the network structures were different in the different cities based on the different kinds of surveillance structures that the central governments had. Berlin, 1865, Paris, 1866, Vienna, 1867, Marseille in 1894. For first-class mail - and I'll talk about that a little bit in the case of New York - 1893 and 1897, and they were in service in Prague until a flood put them out of service in 2003, but this isn't even the half of it.

According to the website, - and I'm really pleased that someone has a .tubes domain, and I'm really pissed that I don't have a .tubes domain of my own - here are all the places that there were pneumatic tube systems. North Africa, South America, all over Europe, they were in Russia, they were in the United States, and I think they may have even been in Australia. There could be more places than this that I don't even have listed right here. They went everywhere that finance went and anywhere that it was necessary to get across a crowded city very quickly. Also, is anyone here a stamp collector? Ok, I really wished more hands were going up. I collect stamps and one thing that I'm really excited about with this one, I wish I had this, this is Vatican City pneumatic tubes. The Vatican has pneumatic tubes, so this is a cover from 1977.

I want to zoom in a little bit, though, and talk about the Parisian poste pneumatique, the pneumatic post-service in Paris, as well as its connection to the Telegraph and postal service infrastructure. The pneumatic post was in service from 1866 to 1984 and went out of service in '84 around the time of Duran Duran because telefax and telephone was finally reliable enough, but until then, there was still a good reason for pneumatic posts. This is what one of the installations look like inside of 20th-century pneumatic post telegraph service. I'll go into some more detail in a minute about how this all worked, but it might be useful for me to show you a quick clip from a movie to show you how this worked. This is a clip from the film "Stolen Kisses" by François Truffaut in 1968.

Antoine Doinel: I'm an imposter of the worst kind. I dreamed that a feeling might exist between us, but that is as impossible as Felix's love for Mme de Mortsauf. Farewell, pneumatique.

Steenson: In this case, Antoine Doinel has just sent his lover a note to break up with her via a pneumatic tube. It was used for important purposes, things he needed to get across the city pretty quickly. Here's how that network of pneumatic tubes began to be developed. In 1866, the first 1-kilometer line was put in place between the post office, the telegraph office, and the central stock exchange. That's what you see with all urban pneumatic tube systems, they go between the stock exchange and the communication centers. Then they grew into a polygon here by 1868. I want to stop here for a second to talk about what's going on with the network of pneumatic posts. This is 1888, and you'll see a couple of things. Do you see the numbers? Those are individual stations.

Number one is right at the center, that central stock exchange hub, which is, of course, the most important place other than the communication centers, and you'll notice that at least in the steam age - which we're going to be in until the early 20th century - the pneumatic tubes lines went one direction. Messages would follow around a polygon, and they'd get to another central spot and then connect to another polygon, being able to get from one end to the city within about two hours and very quickly between the main hubs that are in the denser part of the network. There are even buildings there that are there to just produce air for the pneumatic tube systems. They're dark squares there, you see one right by the polygon B.

This is how they traveled through the city. They grew quite a bit. The 1-kilometer line became 33 kilometers by 1878. By 1907, there were 210 kilometers of pneumatic tubes. By 1945, there were 450 kilometers of pneumatic tubes running under the streets of Paris, making it the biggest pneumatic tube infrastructure in the world. I just really like this photo that my friend, Max, took of pneumatic tubes, and so that's why I have this here. This is a 1967 map that gives you an idea of how it grows. They went at about 22 miles an hour, about 36 kilometers an hour from point A to point B.

Especially in the early days of the pneumatic posts, there was special stationery that was used. This blue one you see in the top right, although it was only in use for about 10 years, this is where the term attraper un bleu came from to catch a blue is what it was called, to receive a pneumatic tube message, so you'd catch a blue. That stuck around even though the stationary was no longer blue. Again, if you collect stamps, if you're in European stamp stores, you can find covers like these in various places or canceled postcards. These were actually telegraphic objects. They were not postal objects, they were meant to relieve the telegraph.

But … Why?

Let's talk about that because really when you see pneumatic tubes, you think, "Why? Why did you have 450 kilometers of pneumatic tubes running under the street of Paris?" There were two booms in the 1860s and the 1880s, huge communication booms that necessitated the development of massive infrastructures. I'll talk about telegraph first. Before the 1850s, France had huge network of optical telegraph. I don't have a good image of them, but in places in Europe, for instance, where you see names like Telegraph Hill, that's often meant because originally there were military semaphores there, optical telegraphs that worked like flags to communicate across the country.

In the 1850s electrical Telegraph was put in place, but it was too expensive for most people to use, so it was mostly used for financial transactions and that was about it. In the 1860s, Napoleon III dropped the price of the telegram about 90% to 1 F or 2 F, 1 F within one department of France, and 2 F if it's going between different states. That meant that the volume exploded. We're talking from 10,000 messages in 1859 to 15 million messages by 1880. It's a labor question.

These images here - and you'll see a number from this particular text called "Les Merveilles de la science," which is the marvels of science - this is how it would work. There would be people there, telegraph agents, who would take the message. They could put together a 20-word message, maybe 40 or 50 of these messages an hour, but it still would have to be translated. Also, note the guy in the background - I call him Waldo because there's always a surveillance dude in all these pictures watching over what everyone is doing.

There was a labor problem in receiving messages, and in making messages, and in sending messages. Still, it was a massive change in society as Dionysius Lardner, who was a British writer, said in 1850, "The electric telegraph for the transmission of intelligence, in the most literal sense of the term, annihilates both space and time." We even today pick up this word, or this phrase annihilate space and time. Here's the guy who originally wrote it talking about the telegraph and its connection to the railway.

Within Paris, there was the issue of streets being incredibly crowded. In fact, all of the places that had pneumatic tube infrastructure were very busy streets. To get across the city quickly was really difficult. There was effectively a last-mile problem with telegrams, they couldn't be delivered to their end position even though they could be created almost instantaneously.

Another thing that's cool about Paris is they had infrastructure. For better or for worse, when Baron Haussmann redesigned the city which had some negative effects such as shutting down a lot of the protests that was going on and destroying homes of the poor, it did put in place good infrastructure. One of the biggest things it did was put in place hygiene and good sewers, and these are sewers that you can go into. If you've ever visited the catacombs in Paris, this is what we're talking about. This is a particular photo by Nadar who was a famous photographer. He took photos in balloons, and he took electric photos under the streets, lit up lights to show how clean, modern and hygienic these sewers were. You can piggyback, and I don't know what date this is, but this is pneumatic tubes and other kinds of services lining to a sewer of Paris sometime in the 20th century, so you could piggyback.

The Great Postal Boom

I also want to talk about the great postal boom of the 1860s and 1880s, because the pneumatic tube infrastructure had a role here once the post and the telegraph merged. There are a number of things that happened when postal infrastructure blew up, a lot of things that we use today in some capacity or another. Central post and telegraph merged in 1879. Commercial banking became popular. People could subscribe to newspapers. You could get a money order to send money to somebody else. Parcel post became possible. A national savings bank was founded, and a new central post office in Paris was designed to process the 52% increase in postal volume.

This is what this building looks like on the outside. It's by an architect named Julien Guadet, and Guadet was the French government architect. It doesn't look as modern as you might think it is. It's a good late 19th-century civic building, it's got stone on the front, it looks like you'd expect it to. In Paris, this is not very far from the Louvre, it's in the 1st arrondissement, so 1st district. When you start seeing it in section, you see some of the things that Guadet did. When he set out to do this project, he went and visited 12 different post offices around Paris and came back with their plans, and combined them and realize that most of them act like civic buildings but not like processors of information, not like he needed to do for a city like Paris. The existing post office there was a disaster. It was falling apart, it was a fire risk, it had rope ladders. I really wish I had a picture of it. I've never seen a picture of it, but I've read accounts of it, and it sounded like just a catastrophe, so it needed to be changed.

What he did here internally is, you see ironwork within, which was sturdy and allowed him to have a lot of through space and not heavy walls, so you see this kind of archway above in the trusses. He also invented a lot of technology to support it. If you look in the middle, about a third to half the way over, you'll see something that looks like a really big shoot, and that's elevators. He put in place elevators to manage the processing of the posts. These elevators would do something like 200 kilograms of mail every 24 seconds, 150 times an hour, making for 120,000 kilograms of mail a day. They'd be brought up to the top level where the postal workers would sort the mail.

He was really pleased with this invention that he came up with these kind of helix-like shoots to get the mail back down to the basement because if you just dropped the mail sacks, they'd explode, and if there was anything fragile inside, it would break. This could make it down to the basement within seven seconds. These were in place probably until the building was renovated, and I'll talk about that in just a second. They get down there, and he called it an avalanche of mail sacks and a torrential rain.

He would say things, he had such good descriptions of everything. These were some of the sorting areas he had in order to fight errors and bugs effectively. Just some of the ways that he talks about the materiality of this, I think, is really pretty brilliant. He says the sorting cabinets, all iron glass and ice as transparent as possible so that a letter cannot remain forgotten without being detected in 1 of about 25,000 compartments of these cabinets, rotating stools of cast iron with padded leather seats, glass tables for opening and postmarking laid upon putty on a base of sheet metal. Metallic reels for twine, gas appliances for sealing, stamping machines. This is a list of all of the interfaces that were used for postal sorting, it's really fascinating. Previously it used to be done in wood cubbyholes, so if you've ever seen a roll-top desk with pigeon holes within it, that used to be what was done, but it made it difficult to see when errors were made or something got left behind.

To be clear, the volume of the post was nothing like it is today. None of these five, six days a week kind of thing. Post was delivered seven days a week, and eventually, this postal building was open 24 hours a day. All things come to an end, and this is what it is becoming right now. The architect Dominique Perrault is renovating the post office, and it is becoming a luxury hotel as well as a public space. There are pictures of the [inaudible 00:22:00] shoots still in place. Those were used for years to follow and modernized in various ways. Yet, I find that when you look at the section of this, you still can see where the elevators would have gone and where the information processing would have happened.

The Stock Exchange

Here's what it looks like going back to the poste pneumatique. Inside the stock exchange, this is the biggest installation. This is from 1893, this particular drawing. You see the surveillance guy in the background again. You see a bunch of people doing their work, and they look collected. They don't look dirty, they're not worried, they're moving comfortably. There's a clock overhead, there was always a clock showing where they're at and making sure bureaucracy is working the way it's supposed to. This person here upfront with the satchel, that's a child laborer, and child laborers were often the people who are bringing messages to the final destination first by foot, then by bicycle, and by about 1918 by motorcycle.

In order to send a message, here's how it would work. The tubist, as it was called, would crank open the pneumatic tube canister, pull it open and then drop a set of cartridges, a set of trains of pneumatic tubes and tube messages into the apparatus, crank it closed, ring an electric bell, pull the steam lever and send it off. Off it would go at 36 kilometers an hour to its next stop.

The qualities of these different carriers changed over the years, and this is a collection of some of them. There are earlier ones up in the back. You'll notice some with copper, a little bit of leather and kind of a skirt of rubber. Later they're made in plastic, often they're brass and felt, and there's one in the front, the one marked number three, I have yet to learn how they worked, but it was effectively physical packets switching. You could set an address, and the tube would route itself within whatever structure you were using.

In the basement of the hotel de post is where the steam was produced, so these are massive steam engines, double redundant, plus one that would run on condensation during the night. What they did is they produced the compressed and rarefied air that would fuel the pneumatic tube systems in Paris plus the couple of smaller buildings that would produce air along the way. It would be stored in these tanks that were 19 meters long and one and a half times their various mechanics' height and size, so they're absolutely enormous. These are in the basement of the central post office.

There's always the problem with pneumatic tubes that sometimes things would get stuck. There's one particular apparatus that was designed in Paris in the 1870s, pretty early in the history of pneumatic post. In this case, what you would do is you would shoot a gun into the pneumatic tube, and it would measure the distance between your bullet and the blockage, and then you could go down into the sewers and open up the part of the pipe where the pneumatic tube messages had gotten stuck and remove them and carry them on. This is better than the situation in Berlin where if they froze in place, they'd have to pour in copious amounts of wine or Brandy to unstick them, or in New York where they'd have to just destroy the sidewalk.

Speaking of electricity, it was used in other ways. I just include this because it's a completely fascinating map. Back at the beginning of the development of pneumatic postal service, they mapped the pneumatic post line, that 1-kilometer line I told you about, and used this as a way to measure speed along the different elevations and movements and curves of the pneumatic post system.

This was such a phenomenon. This is from 1903, it's a set of stationery cards, and this one shows the pneumatic posts, someone licking an envelope and then sending off the pneumatic post message across the tubes, kind of art nouveau style, You see the tubist here and the mechanisms for sending it off within the postal office and then the little blue message that would come to your recipient.

New York

They take a different form in the U.S. Telegraph messages were really small. They had to essentially be like airmail post grams that you could fold over and send, or you could send a postcard. You couldn't send a big heavy letter. In New York, this is actually quite a bit later, this is 1939, but I love showing how all of these infrastructures were layered in the streets. Way down at the bottom, you see the big public water tube. You see trains and subways and then all of the different services that ran just underneath the surface.

The first ideas about pneumatic tubes in the U.S., I'm not sure how real this really is. I'm not sure whether this was just proposed or to what extent it really did happen, but the beach pneumatic transit system from 1870 to 1873 allowed people to go about 400 yards traveling in a pneumatic tube human-sized container, and they were used for first-class mail. I love this congressional report about pneumatic tubes. "New York streets were almost impassible. New York business houses, nevertheless, received their important mail on time. The pneumatic tubes carried the mails."

Here it's much bigger, first-class mail is larger, and so if you can think of a Shriner car or a fire extinguisher, this is about the size of each pneumatic tube canister for first-class mail, and this is what you begin to see here. The first messages were sent by a Chauncey DePugh who said, "This is the age of speed. Everything that makes for speed contributes to happiness, and it's a distinct gain to civilization. We are ahead of the old countries in almost every respect, but we've been behind in methods of communication within our cities. In New York, this condition of communication has hitherto been barbarous. If the greater New York is to be a success, quick communication is absolutely necessary. I hope the system we have seen tried here today will soon be extended all over greater New York."

He sent a dispatch from the general post office to the Produce Exchange post office, and he sent along a Bible wrapped in an American flag, a copy of the constitution, a copy of President William McKinley's inaugural speech, and several other papers. The return delivery contained a bouquet of violets, and apparently later on, including also a large artificial peach. There are rumors that they also sent a cat via a pneumatic tube in New York. Got it from one end to the other to try to get it to the vet, the cat was having none of it and ran away. Some of these images, I apologize for quality, but they are images that I shot at the New York Public Library and in archives in France when I was doing the research here, but you can see how enormous these are. This is the one in the middle that makes me think of a toy car almost in terms of what would fit in them.

There was a pneumatic tube line that went over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I'm still looking for photos of it, I've never seen it. They went out of service in New York in 1953, and their biggest competitor began in 1912, which was the truck. In fact, the truck lobby basically said, "Kill the tubes," in 1914 to Congress.

Pneumatic Tubes Come Indoors

Pneumatic tubes came indoors, and this is thanks to the wonder of the GSO apparatus, which was an electrical, pneumatic tube engine. Rather than you needing huge steam engines to produce compressed and rarefied air, this could do it much smaller. We went from 3,300 pounds to 400 pounds, went from steam to electricity.

This meant that you could bring pneumatic tubes inside. This is from Lamson pneumatic tubes, they still produce them, and you see people here working in daylight very quietly, happily at desks, it's all very tidy. Here are some of the images from inside the Lamson pneumatic tube catalog. You can work in the nice area space, I don't know why all these people are in the basement, but apparently, that happens too. There's an image here about Sears Roebuck, and they processed 135,900 pneumatic tube messages a day. These are orders and money, and in fact, you can see what that control room looked like at Sears Roebuck in Chicago around 1918.

These are stereoscopic viewers, so you can see the pneumatic tubes in 3D. They were used for a lot of other things. This is pneumatic tube railway. These are from the Library of Congress. They were used to communicate from the satellite rail yards to the central rail yard. Porters received their train reservation diagrams. The one in the middle is from Chicago's Union Station. They were also used for weather. They were used for air traffic control to send messages up and down the air traffic control tower.

As I was updating this talk, I find myself pulling up a lot of Google image pages just to see what happens, and I like the fact that this is the futuristic and retro-futuristic of pneumatic tubes. Some of these pictures are quite old, and some of these pictures are quite new. Of course, we have the Jetsons. Here's my version of the future from when I was quite young, the pneumatic tube in the bank. As I pointed out also, today they're in use in hospitals. They dispense medication which can keep the medication in locked cabinets and can automate that pharmacy process. Pneumatic tubes deliver medication to the specific parts of the hospital where they need to be. This image of the Stanford University Hospital from Atlas Obscura shows pneumatic tubes running through their basement. We have them running under the streets of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, at the UPMC part of Oakland, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, not California.

I have to show this. Here's the hyperloop. Elon Musk has been saying we're going to have a hyperloop, and it might get us between Vegas and LA, or maybe in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we will see. We already know they're in place in places like Roosevelt Island. This is in New York, and pneumatic tubes are used to move trash. They have a pneumatic tube trash sorting system, and that's what you see here. Trash moves under the streets of Roosevelt Island.

Pneumatic Tubes Have Always Been the Future

Yet, these futures are really pretty old. This is from a piece that Jules Verne and his brother Michelle wrote in 1889, looking ahead 1,000 years, in the year 2889. "Little though they seem to think of it, the people of this 29th century live continually in fairyland. Surfeited as they are with marvels, they are indifferent in presence of each new marvel. Think of the railroads of the olden times, and you will be able to appreciate the pneumatic tubes through which today one travels at the rate of 1,000 miles per hour." I think Elon Musk is saying 600 miles an hour, so we've got little ways to go between now and 2889.

"Would not our contemporaries prize the telephone and the telephoto more highly had they not forgotten the telegraph?" I love these visions of the future, and frankly, I think that's it because pneumatic tubes have always been the future, but what does that mean? I think that they were interesting for the ways that they solved problems, for the ways that what seems like a massive infrastructural undertaking could make so much sense when it can jump in and stand in for traffic, and stand in for communication, and stand in from getting the scented handkerchief from one person who misses another across the city in not very much time.

There are futuristic pneumatic tubes. There is, for instance, the Alameda-Weehawken in burrito tunnel. If I don't mention this one of you will. It happens every time I talk about this. I just learned that there is even a proposed beer pneumatic tube delivery service. This is really great. All these stations are named after different books, the different authors, and I think it goes cross country, so I think that this is really pretty advanced and I'm really excited about it. If it can deliver me some non-alcoholic beer, I'll be even happier. The funniest thing is that even when you do research on pneumatic tubes, you find yourself in the tubes.

Back about a decade ago when I went to New York Public Library to do research and to write what was going to be a set of papers, and eventually this talk here today about pneumatic tubes, I was dutifully writing out my requests for the Lamson pneumatic tube pamphlets and the congressional reports from the 19 teens pneumatic tubes this, pneumatic tubes that. I handed them over to the guy behind the desk, and he pulled out a canister, and I said, "No way. Look what's written on these pieces of paper, it says 'pneumatic tubes.' You're going to send this by pneumatic tube," and he said, "I am," and I said, "I'm more excited about this than you are." He said, "You are," but I think it just goes to show us that it really is a series of tubes.


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Recorded at:

Feb 03, 2020