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.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

speak easy

A new speakeasy has opened up in town, serving delicious cocktails in a warm stony basement. Mostly I see groups of friends and a few couples enjoying the cloistered space. They seem to be having a good time but what I haven't seen is any flirting between the groups over their whiskey sours. In Berlin in the 1920s, there was plenty of nightclub flirting, and pneumatic tubes were central to how love letters would be sent from table to table.


Atlas Obscura called it the Tinder of the 20th Century. Their recent article talks about the Resi and the Femina, the first which I have written about previously on this blog.

Fascinatingly the article discusses how the notes passed by the tubes were first censored in the switchroom, described as an early form of comment moderation, and that among the many gifts that people could send to each other were perfume and cocaine. Atlas Obscura also makes the connection between the tubes and the telephone song in Cabaret, the first song I know about with a pneumatic theme.

Image from Cabaret Berlin.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

tubes for children

Now I have a child there is a floor of the library where I am spending a lot more time - the children's section in the basement of our local public library. We mostly go there to borrow board books but I am interested in how a library in St Louis County is attracting children in other ways - through pneumatic tubes.

The Florissant Valley Library have recently renovated their children's section with a wall of pneumatic tubes, I guess to show how book slips or other objects travel. I can't tell from the photos whether children or adults can send things themselves through the tubes, it would be interesting to find out.

There are lots of photos of the renovation, under copyright, at the Library's Flickr page.

Image of Verne's cover from FC8 V5946 869ve, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Congressional records

While there is a lot going on at the moment with the Hyperloop including new routes announced around the world, carving up the world map like a big Ticket to Ride board (I can see the Hyperloop boardgame already), more funding and Richard Branson joining the scene, in coming posts I want to look at where pneumatic tubes have been appearing lately in other news.


As I start winter with old episodes of West Wing, sent to me in the post on DVD by my mum, a good place to start is the Library of Congress Book Tunnel, which Atlas Obscura recently showcased. The building opened to the public in 1898 and it soon became clear that there was the:
Serious question how some senator, for instance, in the heat of a fiery debate on the floor, could in the shortest space of time get to his hand some particular volume whose authority would unhorse his antagonist - a volume nestled, perhaps, deep in the shelves of the library, a quarter of a mile away.
Pneumatic tubes were the answer, thanks to the Miles Pneumatic Tube Company. Requests for the documents would be sent via tube, and then the texts whisked back. As Obscura write, "this whole literary orchestra took just five minutes, likely less time than it would take your average contemporary congressman to pull up an arcane PDF through LOC.gov."

Alas, a century later the pneumatic system closed down, although apparently a tunnel remains where you can still see librarians wheeling those old-fashioned things called books around on carts.

You can read more about the system on the Library of Congress' blog.

Image of Library of Congress pneumatic tube system from ep_jhu's Flickr album, used under the creative common licence.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

hyper interest in hyperloop

It would have been hard recently to have escaped news updates on the Hyperloop, with reports of its first test, as well as talk of the Hyperloop coming to Europe.


The Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment in the country I am living in, the Netherlands, apparently being a "hyperloop enthusiast". Delft University will launch Europe's first test track.

Despite being quite a different kind of infrastructural set-up, the Hyperloop continues to be compared to pneumatic tube systems in much of this reporting. See for example, the Business Insider which traces the history of technologies which preceded the Hyperloop, and includes various different pneumatic tube systems.

Image used under CC lisence, from Wikimedia Commons.