Tech

A Pipe Dream

Readers of Arthur Conan Doyle would know that his deerstalker-donning detective, Sherlock Holmes, would often, hoof it to the post office to dispatch a telegram. In his day, this was the most rapid mode of communication, anywhere outside of London, be that Cheshire, Calcutta, or Cleveland.

It was also the quickest way of sending word to anyone within London. If, for instance, you wanted a paramour a keep a secret assignation the very evening, you’d still send her a telegram.

The telegram was e-mail and text, rolled into one.

Once you’d written out what you wanted it to say, the telegraphist would’ve counted the number of words, and charged you on the basis of the length of the missive. He or she would then transmit it using a telegraph machine to the distant end, the content of the message being carried along wires.

But for relaying messages even faster, the Victorians had developed a smart piece of technology that carried the message itself. The pneumatic tube was a labyrinthine network of subterranean tubes, just like pipelines, except that they carried solid objects, instead of fluids, such as oil and gas.

In 1853, an electrical engineer named J. Latimer Clark, built a narrow tube, only 1.5 inches wide, for conveying messages between the headquarters of the Electric and International Telegraph Company (a.k.a the Central Telegraph Station), in Lothbury, and its offices on Threadneedle Street, over a short distance of about 0.2 miles. This was a one-way tube, for replies were returned to the Central Telegraph Station by hand.

A telegram, written on a piece of paper, would be folded up, and placed in a little container. The container was then pushed into a tube, which connected a sending station and a receiving station. At the receiving station, there’d be an air compressor pump that would either draw or blow air.

When it drew, it pulled the container along the tube toward it. When it blew, it pushed the container in the opposite direction. When the door to the tube was closed, the container was propelled to the other end, which could be another room in the same building or another building, nearby.

As letters delivered by the pneumatic tube arrived faster than those by both post and messenger, it’s no surprise that its demand surged.

The pipes under London grew longer steadily, expanding, at its peak, to 11 miles of “house tubes” and 74 miles of “street tubes.” They were set up in Liverpool, next, in 1864. This was an improvement on was the original mechanism as it allowed messages to be sent both ways.

Telegraphy was originally handled by private companies, but recognizing its burgeoning sway, the government took control of those companies, and incorporated them under the Central Telegraph Office, a wing of the Post Office. This agency was the hub of two networks: the British telegraph and the London pneumatic tube.

Britain’s success inspired copycats elsewhere: in Berlin, in 1865; in Paris, in 1866; in Vienna, in 1867. It came to the U.S., in 1893, making its debut in Philadelphia.

Operated by the U.S. Post Office Department (the precursor of the United States Postal Service), later, it opened in other metropolises: New York City, Chicago, Boston, and Saint Louis.

On August 1, 1898, tube service began over the Brooklyn Bridge from all 23 post offices in Manhattan to the Brooklyn General Post Office. The maiden “carrier” contained a bible, a flag, and a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Mail would travel through the Big Apple’s hidden, 27-mile-long artery, in 25-pound steel canisters, about two feet long, each of which could hold 600 letters, and travel up to 35 m.p.h. In its heyday, the infrastructure handled 95,000 letters a day, about 30 percent of the city’s postal traffic.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful, though, if it could’ve evolved to allow a letter to be sent all the way to the recipient’s residence? How Harry Potter-ish it all sounds to come out of the kitchen to see a Christmas gift, waiting in an alcove by the fireplace.

As a postal delivery service, though, it didn’t mature to that level, by and by, the technology began to be widely adopted by department stores, offices, banks, and stock exchanges to send small, priority packages, memos, paperwork, or money. NASA’s mission control had them up until the 1960s.

Pneumatic delivery was hailed as a game-changer, after the steam engine and the electric telegraph. The technology cheerleaders of the 19th century believed that if it could shuttle parcels and packets and envelopes back and forth, it could as well be a viable mode of transport, whisking people from one point to another.

These notions were reflected in the science-fiction bestsellers of the time. In Jules Verne’s “In the Year 2889,” published in 1899, people travel at 1,000 m.p.h. through these submarine tubes that stretch across the oceans, linking the world’s capitals.

In the 20th episode of “The Jetsons,” titled, “Miss Solar System,” which aired on February 10, 1963, George Jetson crawls into a pneumatic tube, which spits him out at the office of his boss, Mr. Cosmo G. Spacely.

In reality, it was exorbitant to maintain the grid. It shut down in New York City, in 1953, after being in operation for 56 years. In Paris, it endured till 1983, when it was eventually, replaced by telex and fax.

Today, it’s prevalence has dwindled to big-box stores like Sam’s Club and Home Depot, where it serves to transport light freight within the facility or in drive-up banks, where it ferries cash between tellers and banks.

Even though the pneumatic tube is now a pipe dream, its allure lingers.

h/t: LAPSED HISTORIAN and NATIONAL POSTAL MUSEUM, SMITHSONIAN

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