Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Fittingly the article begins in a windowless room in a London basement. At first, we are not told where this basement is - it could be anywhere in the city. The tubes are hidden, and that is the point. Later we find out that the basement is in the University College Hospital, and are told that hospitals are the booming market for pneumatic tube systems.
There are some terrific stories in the article, such as the one about the secret pneumatic message system between composer Guiseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito, where notes about the opera they were working on were shuttled under the streets of Milan. Academic Holly Kruse is interviewed about the social impact of the tubes, and I had the opportunity to speak to Jacob Aron too (read some of my comments at the end of the article) and talk about this "antique messaging technology" made new again.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
And if you have read any of the media coverage, you've probably read something about pneumatic tubes too.
It seems that journalists can't help but compare the Hyperloop to pneumatic tubes, despite the engineering principles being quite different, and Musk's insistence that it works very differently to pneumatic tube systems. The Telegraph describes the Hyperloop as a modern day pneuamatic travel system, while The L.A. Times calls is the "equivalent of a 450-mile pneumatic tube". WIRED write that the engineering is similar to "old-school" pneumatic tube systems, and the Globe and Mail said the Hyperloop system was "not unlike the pneumatic tubes that transport capsules stuffed with paperwork in older buildings. In this case, the cargo would be several people, reclining for the ride".
Why do the comparisons persist? Well besides the obvious tube-like appearance of the transportation system, I think that these comparisons tie into a romantic notion of transporting people around the world like parcels and letters, by pneumatics. As I wrote previously, it is a science-fiction fantasy imagined by many entrepreneurs in the past, so a comparison to pneumatic tubes links Elon Musk to this lineage of great imagination.
His ideas certainly seem to have sparked the imaginations of many tech-bloggers and micro-bloggers who are already lining up for the first $20 ticket. For others though it has led to daydreams of times gone by, such as Paul Whitefield from the LA Times:
"I remember when we had pneumatic tubes here at The Times. We used them to whoosh cylinders full of important documents from the newsroom on the third floor to the composing room on the second floor. Quite often, they got stuck. People got paid to fish the cylinders out. One time, a fellow newsman tried to do the job himself. He got his arm stuck in the tube. So the people who got paid to fish the cylinders out had to fish him out too. It's just one more great thing about journalism that the Internet has killed".Image from Twitter.
Monday, August 12, 2013
Karin works in quality assurance, a job she tells me about over a hot chocolate, in the staff kitchen and dining area. After I finish my drink, Karin takes me on a tour of the factory. We enter the factory floor first of all. There is a quiet, subdued sense of industrious work in the workshop, with the faint sound of a saw or drill coming from a nearby room. A smell of grease or oil gets stronger as we step further into the workshop.
At one bench, a man sits painting parts of tubing with grey paint, using a small paintbrush. He works by himself, and has about ten parts in front of him. Behind him there is a large wall of little drawers of hardware; screws and other pieces needed to assemble the tubes, all neatly labelled and ordered.