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, Cancun 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 your note, the telegraphist would’ve counted the number of words and charged you accordingly. He or she would then transmit it with the aid of a telegraph machine to the distant end, the content of the message carried along wires.

For relaying messages even faster, the Victorians had developed a smart piece of technology that transported 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 it in the opposite direction. Once the tube was sealed, it 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 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 U.S. Postal Service), it expanded to 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 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 and see a pretty Christmas gift waiting by the fireplace.

Even though it didn’t mature to that level as a postal delivery service, 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 run beneath the oceans, connecting the world’s capitals.

In the 20th episode of “The Jetsons,” “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.


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