Sunday, August 4, 2019

toronto tubes


I spent a three weeks in Toronto recently, and stayed on the 36th floor of a downtown apartment building. It felt high, really high considering I had been living in the Netherlands for so long now. I had to put my garbage down a chute and spent hours of my trip waiting for and riding elevators. It got me thinking about pneumatic tube systems though, and how they traverse vertical distances so efficiently, more efficiently it feels than people or garbage.

It reminded me too of the article "That time Toronto had a system of Pneumatic Mail Tubes", which describes the revolution that the pneumatic tube systems built in the 1930s brought to communication between the city's newspaper, the Toronto Star, and the city hall. The system was a collaboration between the rail, telecommunication and newspaper heavyweights of Canada. Chris Bateman, author of the article in BlogTO, writes that:
In a rare show of co-operation in 1928, Canadian Pacific and Canadian Nation Railways laid what would become the foundation of the Toronto Star and Telegram system by running an elaborate 4,500-metre pneumatic tube network from their respective transmitting offices - at Yonge and Melinda and Bay and Temperance - down Bay to Postal Station A at Union Station. A small spur connected to the mail room at the Royal York Hotel ... Manholes every 300 feet down Bay provided access to the 2 1/4-inch copper tubes - which were laid on a concrete foundation and encased in creosoted wood - in case a canister became stuck.
Two years later, the Star and Telegram joined the pneumatic mail system, installing two sets of pipe in parallel down Bay Street. At its extent, the system included 7 properties, though there was no central exchange and most were only connected to one other place. It's not clear when the pneumatic tubes fell into disuse. The Royal York still has the transparent pipes of its internal system on display but, sadly, its staff have found more convenient (though infinitely less exciting) ways of getting messages through the giant old building." 
I always seem to come across or remember these articles when it is too late and I write this now from back home in Maastricht, trying to remember if I saw any manholes on the street which would have provided access to those tubes. Probably not, I was too busy looking skyward, in awe of all those tall buildings.

Photo: my own

Monday, July 22, 2019

last post

Communications museums are intriguing places. They are museums of something we take so much for granted, something that seems so ephemeral, that changes so quickly, that it is difficult to materialise in exhibitions.



There are many wonderful communications museums I have visited around the world. I get excited about how each museum addresses the challenges above, and how they try and find material traces of communication in different places of that particular site.

I couldn't believe that I hadn't yet visited one of our local Dutch communication museums, COMM in Den Haag, and just happened to be in the area recently when renewing a passport. What great luck, with a few spare hours before we needed to come home, especially as they had a wonderful pneumatic tube display (apparently, according to Wendeline who I bought my tickets from and who kindly explained a bit about the museum, the most popular part of the museum with visitors). Even luckier but also perhaps sadder, it was the last day the museum was open to the public.

So I have included some photos below, for those that will not have the chance to visit in the future. You can also read the museum's post about the buizenpost here. The museum is however open for events, so I am already plotting for a pneumatic tube conference - stay tuned and posted! (and let me know if you are interested)


Visitors had the chance, once travelling through the four floors of the museum to write themselves a message and send it via pneumatic tube to the first floor.



There all the messages were then posted onto a board for visitors to read.





The museum also had a beautifully designed cafe, with what I presume were donors' names (but could be otherwise) on coloured postal boxes, and stamps on the lockers.



Monday, February 25, 2019

zippy sunday


This Sunday I was reminded of all the great blogposts on pneumatic tubes, by a retweet from the author Dennis Cooper, about one of his posts from 2017. There are so many others, many already covered here.



One that I haven't yet mentioned is UnTapped Cities' post called An Illustrated History of NYC's pneumatic tubes, an excerpt basically from Julia Wertz' Illustrated History of NYC, which I have loved revisiting while drawing the illustrations for my current book (not on pneumatic tubes, though hopefully that is to come one day soon).

Photo of tubes in the Time Temp building used through a creative commons lisence, from Michelle Souliere's Flickr page.

Monday, December 24, 2018

In the house

Annabel Crabb hosts, along with Leigh Sales, one of my favourite podcasts Looks 10 Chat 3. She also hosts the TV show called "The House", about Parliament House in Australia, which shows, to quote her in ABC:
"the manic behind-the-scenes activity among attendants corralling amendments as they are drafted and debated, and using the Willy Wonka-esque Lamson Tube, a pneumatic message chute, to ping amendments back to the Senate Table Office."
Check out one or both this Christmas. Thanks to my father-in-law Trevor for sending the newspaper cut out about the show.

Happy holidays!!


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Holiday tube tunes

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, some pneumatic tube beats to accompany your hammock G&T or if you are down south and trying to stay warm, your favourite whiskey (thanks Thomas!)


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Moving packages


Yesterday I went to a seminar organised at my university (Maastricht University) by the Department of Knowledge Engineering, to celebrate 25 years of their work on artificial intelligence. One of the presenters Andreas Weigend was a former scientist at Amazon, the digital company now gone physical.

While everyone is talking about the innovations of Amazon at the moment, an article in The Atlantic argues that we should be looking at an earlier company, Sears, as one of the significant forerunners of the Amazon revolution.


Sears started as a mailing company, with watches, and quickly grew. To manage it's mail order business it built "massive warehouses, like its central facility in Chicago, in which messages to various departments and assembly workers were sent through pneumatic tubes".

The logistics of such organisations are fascinating as they grow and evolve with the times, the materiality of the movement of objects no less important now, despite email and other digital messages.

Image of Sears Roebuck & Company Mail Order Plant basement, Section H of the pneumatic tube network, Chicago, from Library of Congress.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

dead letter office

Quick follow-up on my last blogpost - Richard Griffen offers a much more personal review of The Post, in the Wicked Local:
When I was a child, that Post was the largest newspaper in New England, and it was also where my father worked. Newspapers were central to our world.
After my freshman year in college, I had a summer job as a copy boy at another paper, The Boston Globe. Along with one or two other young men, I stood by a pneumatic tube in the newsroom, waiting to send typewritten pages upstairs to the composing room.
In this digital age, of course, such jobs no longer exist. But they did in 1971, and in “The Post,” Spielberg shows us a world of pneumatic tubes and metallic type, when people counted on papers for the latest news.
One of my summer jobs was typing letters on an electronic typewriter in my dad's architectural office. I used the keyboard skills taught to me in my typewriter classes in my catholic all-girls' highschool, learning QWERTY and space bars and what to do with mistakes. I can still hear in my ears Mrs Skippington's singsong voice orchestrating us girls in synchronised typing. I guess that job doesn't exist these days either.

Photo of a hospital's "Typewriter Graveyard" from Jonathan Haeber's Flickr page, used under the creative commons lisence.

Monday, February 19, 2018

pneumatics in The Post

It happens in the climactic scene. The Washington Post has decided to go ahead and print a story that could potentially ruin them. The articles are typed frantically in the editor's living room, while the editor's daughter sells them lemonade. The articles are rushed to the copy editor, and then, the moment comes, are shot through the pneumatic tube system to the printers.

And so pneumatic tubes appear at a pivotal moment in yet another movie, this time The Post.


The Washington Post review of the film is unsurprisingly favourable:
"Few will be immune to the romance that lies at the center of a movie that takes as much delight in pneumatic tubes, linotype machines and telexes trailing like bridal veils as it does in temperamental opposites finding common purpose in the institution to which they’re both truly, madly and deeply devoted. 'The Post' works on many levels, from polemic and thinly veiled cautionary tale to fun period piece and rip-roaring newspaper yarn. But at its most gratifying, it’s a love story, from the lede to the kicker."
The Post indeed could be read as a romantic eulogy to technologies lost or dying. Although, as we know, pneumatic tubes are alive and well. They just aren't rushing copy to the printers anymore, just as those newspapers are no longer thudding on our doorsteps on Saturday mornings.


Some useful glossary that might help with the above, from inside my recently purchased Field Notes Reporter's Notebook:

Lede: "an attention-grabbing first graf, summarizing the 'who, what, when, where, and why' of an article. Don't 'bury' this!"

Kicker: "a final graf that ties up a piece with wit and flair"

Graf: "abbreviation of 'paragraph'"

Image from the New Zealand Herald Manual of Journalism, first in my blogpost "In the Newsroom". For more on pneumatics in newsrooms, see my other post "Reporting on the Pneus"

Monday, February 5, 2018

buying bitcoins

It might be the biggest bubble in history, but one thing is for sure, it is hard to avoid talk about cryptocurrency at the moment.

How to buy the magic coins? Pneumatic tube!


This is an except from one of my favourite podcasts, Gimlet's Reply All (dubbed by The Guardian as “‘A podcast about the internet’ that is actually an unfailingly original exploration of modern life and how to survive it.), from the most recent episode no. 115 called The Bitcoin Hunter, where the hosts of the show attempt to track down Jia's lost bitcoins.
LEX: So, can you explain to me, to the best of your memory, like exactly the process of buying the bitcoin and then buying the drugs?
JIA: Yes, OK. Uh, there are gonna be big holes here. (laughs)
ALEX: (laughs)
JIA: OK. So I downloaded Tor…
And then I looked at the Silk Road, and I said, “OK, I’m gonna try and get some bitcoin and make an account and do this.”
And then I remember taking my boyfriend’s car to the Bank of America drive through, putting like, you know, what I think might have been $80, in a little pneumatic tube, it getting sucked up the pneumatic tube—
ALEX: Wait a minute, you deposited money–
JIA: Yeah.
ALEX: Cash, American, US dollars.
JIA: Absolutely, absolutely.
ALEX: Via pneumatic tube–
JIA: Yeah, yeah I did.
ALEX: At a normal bank–
JIA: Yeah, is that? I think that’s what I was supposed to do.  
ALEX: I think that was actually just her putting money in her bank account. Either way, she goes home, gets on the internet, just like, the regular internet, not the dark web, and she goes to this thing called a bitcoin exchange, think of it as a bank.
Head to the link above to listen to the rest of the podcasts, it is truly fascinating stuff ...

Bank drive thru pneumatic tube image from Derek Dysar's Flickr account, used under the Creative Commons lisence.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas games

It's almost Christmas and one thing I will be doing plenty of over the holidays, is playing games. I like board games, and am still dreaming of a pneumatic tube themed game - maybe Ticket to Ride meets Metro? - but for those who like their games on a screen, you might want to check out SteamWorld Dig 2, which, according to Venture Beat,"is impossible to put down" and includes a pneumatic tube ride for those who can unlock it.

Happy holidays playing whatever games you like to play!


Image from Julochka's Flickr used under the Creative Commons lisence.