Thursday, May 28, 2015

stock(holm) in the tubes


On Monday I had the pleasure of being a guest presenter at the Social Anthropology Department at Stockholm University, to talk about pneumatic tubes.

I was invited by Asta Vonderau who is doing exciting research on how "the cloud" is culturally imagined and socially negotiated and how it materialises in terms of environmental change. She does fieldwork in previously unexplored places such as the Facebook data centre.

Asta and I first met as fellow panelists of an infrastructure panel at last year's EASA conference in Tallinn. It was a great chance to talk about infrastructures again with her and to present my work on pneumatic tubes to her colleagues. There was an excellent discussion afterwards, about the materiality/immateriality of air, the status of engineers, the acoustic possibilities of considering the hospital as an instrument, the tubes as part of a body, how fiction plays out in engineers' practices, aesthetics and issues of contamination.

One researcher reminded me of Matt Novak's piece on the most Jetsonian of technologies. I reread it today and became intrigued by one of the images in the blog, of George arriving from a pneumatic tube journey:


I love how George's eyes trail behind him, a hint at some of the concerns of human pneumatic tube travel, that our bodies will change under the speed and pressure, that we will melt, coagulate, malform. Our bodies altered by technologies, as they always are.

Image from Matt Novak's blogpost.

Friday, May 22, 2015

taking the trash out


Taking the trash out seems to be increasingly becoming a pneumatic affair.

For decades residents of some Swedish suburbs have used pneumatic systems to dispose of their trash. The Swedish company Envac (previously CentralSug) have been making these tube systems since the 1950s, the first system for the disposal of medical waste being installed in Sollefte√• Hospital in 1961. Later in the 1960s the company installed systems for household waste disposal in new suburbs, and now more recently in the historic city centre of Stockholm.

Further afield Envac's pneumatic tubes can be found in places such as the Garak Fish Market in Seoul, Copenhagen Cathedral in Denmark, Disneyworld and Roosevelt Island in the U.S. and since January 2015, a new eco-neighbourhood in Paris, France.


Residents of Clichy-Batignolles in the 17th put their garbage bags in green receptacles in the lobby of their buildings, which are then sped through pipes to a disposal centre 1.5 km away for treatment and recycling. The residents of the 20 billion dollar new Hudson Yards project in New York City will find a similar system in their designer neighbourhood while those working and living in one of the 112 tower buildings in the Gujarat International Finance and Tech-City in India, have since last month been using one of the world's largest underground waste disposal systems.

As eco-neighbourhoods, designer districts and techno-cities emerge across the globe, we may be seeing the disappearance of trashcans and garbage trucks, as pneumatic tubes find yet another way to spread their tentacles into daily life.

Image of Parc Clichy-Batignolles from David Fleg's photostreamThanks to Cargofish for pointing me towards many aspects of this fascinating topic.

Monday, May 18, 2015

moving house

I am moving houses a lot at the moment, house-sitting and staying in friends' spare rooms until the new rental is available. It is always when I don't have a home that I spend the most time designing a dream house in my head. One of the important questions, besides details of the kitchen (having spent too many years in cramped quarters, too often without an oven) is of course, where would all the pneumatic tubes go?
Where to put them? In the living room, at the dining table or by the BBQ, as in the Heineken commercial above? In the children's room, like the tooth-fairy dad? Between the kitchen and bedroom for night-time snacks? Between the library and couch? The mailbox and kitchen table? Let me know if you have any good ideas!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

memories of a lost library

I am office-less at the moment, and like many, my writing desks are those of libraries, cafes and dining rooms. A friend told me recently of a library in London where the litterati write: The London Library. I wondered of course, did this leathered, soft-lighted place have pneumatic tubes? I can't find any evidence yet but my search did lead me to find tubes in another library favoured by London writers such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells: The British Library Reading Room.

Orwell and Wells? Could these library tubes have inspired their use in science fiction classics such as 1984?

Possibly. Here are some reflections from some other writers who been inspired by the library's tubes:

"The truth is, of course, that time has invaded this perfect space. Each year adds five miles of books and magazines to the library's London shelves, while, at the other end of the scale of time, another five miles disintegrate, the volumes sometimes opening in blizzards of paper flakes, brown and brittle as autumn leaves. Mice haunt the iron bookstacks, where the detritus of centuries is arranged in an order comprehensible only to the librarians. Marcus Aurelius sits among books of etiquette and children's annuals, and laden trolleys are heaved into rumbling paternosters - a superhighway of Lamson pneumatic tubes, brawn and low pay, corrupting in the noxious Bloomsbury air. From her raised seat at the exact centre of the room, Nina Evans, the reading-room superintendent, is trying to disguise from readers the panic of two pigeons, trapped in the lantern of the dome". (James Buchan, The Independent, 24 July 1994).

"When I’m in London I spend a lot of my time in the hushed yet humming, hive-like halls of the British Library. I’ve had a Readers Pass almost 20 years now. I first began using the BL’s Reading Rooms at Bloomsbury before the Library moved to St Pancras in the late 1990s. In those days, when the BL still preserved its lingering air of Victorian decay, Readers used to request books by filling out a little chit of carbon-triplicate paper, which would then require posting through a little wooden window in the centre of the Round Reading Room. The first time I ever did this, I hesitated a moment, hoping I’d filled in my request slip correctly, but before I could reconsider a disembodied hand shot out of the little hole and snatched it from my startled grasp. The slip was then placed into a small cylindrical capsule and promptly whisked off around a pneumatic tube transport system into the unfathomable depths of the old library (the tubes used to whisper quietly like ghosts). Eventually your book would arrive at your desk, delivered by the stately progress of a rickety old trolley, with one of those carbons tucked between the leaves." (Tim Chamberlain, Eccentric Parabola, 21 July 2012)

As Chamberlain recalls, in 1997 the Reading Room in the British Museum underwent rennovation. In the process the tubes disappeared, along with the heavy dusty card catalogues. The space modernised, including electrical outlets at each desk and telephone jacks for later connection to the internet. The New York Times reported that "instead of the old pneumatic-tube system by which slips of paper ordering books were sent to attendants in the stacks, books will be ordered using an automatic system run by computer, and a light will go on at the desk of the person requesting the books when the order is ready."

The library function of this space actually moved to the British Library's then new St Pancras site. The Reading Room opened three years later, the tubes no longer creating a superhighway into the unfathomable depths below the museum, yet its many other splendors now open to the public to enjoy.

Image: Book stacks in the British Museum Reading Room, 1905. Wikipedia: "Biblioteksbyggnader, Bokmagasin bredvid l√§sesalen i British museum, Nordisk familjebok" by Nordisk familjebok - Nordisk familjebok (1905), vol.3, p.296. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 8, 2015

keeping American rolling

A railway yardmaster stays connected to the central office via pneumatic tubes, Chicago, Illinois, 1942:


There is so much to find of interest in this photo - the pinstripes and polished shoes, the cans of paint (?) and rags, the war effort posters, yesterday's newspapers and of course the bolts and metal and pipes smelling of grease, hammering and clanking away.

Gorgeous medium-format negative by Jack Delano for the Office of War Information, reposted from the Shorpy website. Further use of image on blogs to be attributed to Shorpy.

Monday, May 4, 2015

tracking objects

As I learned during my recent tour of a Dutch hospital, tracking and tracing is becoming ever more important in the circulation of objects in hospital pneumatic tube systems. Tracking systems are used in hospitals to not only keep a trace of the movement of capsules, but also link into other networks in hospitals, such as pharmaceutical information systems for example, or automated robots delivering medications. Through the use of barcodes, moving objects in the hospital can be counted, traced, and eventually, can become linked to the individuals who send and retrieve them. In hospitals everything needs to be accountable, and actions need to be traced in case things go wrong. 

How do such infrastructures work in practice though? As anthropologists have shown in their work in hospitals, work doesn't always follow flow-charts and checklists. Has someone written a social or cultural study of the hospital barcode I wonder? I am interested to learn more and to think further about how the traces of contemporary pneumatic tube transport may relate to those of the past, in postal systems for example, when a letter's journey was marked by stamps and creases.

Image from Wikipedia.