Wednesday, December 29, 2010

pneumatic tube map of the week 6

Postage stamp, France

See here for another great postage stamp tube map. And for a post about this particular postage, on a good map blog, visit MapMarks.

Stamp image from Motor Filatelisten Nederlands.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

christmas post

On December 15th, nearly two hundered construction workers building a new children's hospital in Portland, Oregon, gathered on the new rooftop garden to celebrate christmas with the sick kids. The background for this celebration was a spectacular christmas display created from materials of each construction worker's trade. The display included a sleigh made from steel frames, a snowman from plumbing fixtures, a reindeer from ductwork, christmas trees from electrical boxes and sprinkler fittings, and last but not least, a 16-foot high candy cane made from pneumatic tubes.

This sounds like a remarkable way in which to involve the children in the building of the new hospital. I wish I could find a picture of this event - I have looked without success, so if you do come across one, please send it my way. In lieu of these christmas graphics, here is a picture from a great WIRED article about the evolution of christmas lights, which tickled both my STS interests and love of christmas tree decorations.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

anthropolgist at work

Shuan Tan captures it perfectly.

Image scanned from The Bird King and other sketches

Saturday, December 18, 2010

pneu postmarkings

I think that I love cancellation stamps as much as I love the variety that you lick and stick. My husband and I posted all of our wedding correspondence from a little postoffice on the other side of town because of their beautiful cancellation stamp (it used to be the official postoffice for the Zoo, so had a butterfly wrapping itself around the date). Postal markings such as these tell all kinds of stories, about place and time and other aspects of the mileu.

Postal markings for pneumatic mail are of course no exception, and reveal something about the sociohistorical times during which post was sent via tubes. In an essay The Pneumatic Post of Paris by J.D. Hayhurst O.B.E, he writes about the markings in Paris:
"The 'postal' date stamp of 25 mm diameter incorporating a B was applied at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Again these were usually struck in blue and sometimes in black, but in the first half of 1894 a number of of fives used a violet ink ... At the turn of the century new types of date stamp were introduced which, for the first time, showed the time of despatch of a pneu, so that it was no longer necessary to record this time in the daily register ... A pneu, during its journey from the sender to the addressee, might have to be transferred from one tube line to another and when this occurred the office of exchange applied its date stamp on the back. Using date stamps incorporating times, the times of each stage of a journey could be ascertained. At the big exchanges of Central and Bourse a stamp was mechanically applied. ... In the early days of the pneumatic post, pneus might be addressed, by accident or otherwise, beyond its boundaries; they were then endorsed in manuscript 'Hors limites' or 'Hors service' and transferred to the post. The sorters tired of writing and made up their own handstamps for these and other annotations. In this category of individual initiative handstamps is 'BOURSE B' (B for banlieue) applied to pneus arriving at Bourse for the suburbs after the last despatch and held there overnight"

Stamps such as these above are markers of the journey of 'the pneu', a tangible trace of the history of the post which says 'I have passed through this place on this date'. I love that the life of the post is recorded, however partially, and also the ways in which mail staff adapted the stamps to suit their own purposes, such as the handstamp to redirect wrongly addressed mail. I can't help but wonder what traces are left on contemporary 'packages' sent via pneumatic tube systems?

See my mother's blog for a post on a similar theme. Hand cancellation stamp images from Wikipedia and the beautiful first day cover from Motor Filatelisten Nederlands.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

homely tubes

Pneumatic tube systems are used in hospitals, supermarkets, banks and pharmacies. But what about our own homes?

A UK-based project called Foodtubes, which promises to revolutionalise food transportation via pneumatic/vacuum technology, has recently led to all sorts of incredulous outcries and postulations by techie and environmental bloggers embracing and ridiculing the idea. Someone who has commented on the grist blog post about this issue argues that it is a waste to use Foodtube technology at the organisational level, but rather it should be taken into our own homes:
"I don't know about replacing deliveries to stores... trucks are awfully efficient for that! Make them electric, and they'd be hard to beat. On the other hand, pneumatic tubes could provide efficient delivery to individual homes, eliminating the need for people to go to the store. With modern barcode or RFID systems, the packages could be routed to the correct house easily enough. Some things might not do too well - I wouldn't want to cram a 20-pound watermelon into a 6-inch tube - but for most staples it would work quite well"
It isn't the first time that pneumatic tube technology has been considered for home usage. Remember that great Heineken ad from a few months ago? There is also the home elevator, as well as centralised home vacuum cleaning units. My dad remembers one of these units being installed in his parents' new home in the 1980s. It seems that home-based pneumatic tube technology is either something from the past, or the projected Jetsonian future, but is it for us right now?

Image courtesy of fabulousfairy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

steampunky tubes

I have had another hiatus away from the blog, this time due to a relocation to Maastricht, to work on an exciting new research project at the Virtual Knowledge Studio. I'll write more about that another time, but this snowy Sunday afternoon, I thought I would write about something that has been on my mind for sometime: steampunk!

Older pneumatic tube systems have long been associated with steampunk culture - all those knobs and brass and gorgeous ornate, futuristic detailing:

I have always liked this aesthetic dimension to pneumatic tube systems, an aesthetic that was first introduced to me by my sister's partner Jarek. What has prompted me to write about it today are two publications: the most recent edition of Neo-Victorian Studies, completely devoted to the topic; and a series of blogposts by lord_k on Dieselpunks, here, here and here. The latter is a well-researched essay in three parts, filled with photos and the mention of a number of books and films where pneumatic tubes are actors (many added to my reading list).

Contemporary hospital pneumatic tube systems have retained little of the steampunk vibe, with all of their plastic and duct-tape-able parts. But the fact that these systems are now computerised does not necessarily prevent a few steampunk elements being introduced (see this steampunk workshop site for a fantastic post about how to build a steampunk computer).

For those interested in medical museums, Thomas
Söderqvist has written about steampunk medical objects on his blog Biomedicine on Display, and there is a current exhibition at the The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation and past exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science worth checking out.

Images from wikimedia commons, flikr (falling_angel) and steampunk workshop.

Friday, November 5, 2010

pneumatic tube cartoons

There is a great collection of videos on YouTube put out by pneumatic tube company Telepost (see this previous post for a YouTube video by Swisslog). The cartoons are cute, the music catchy and they do a great job of illustrating the work of pneumatic tubes (their human-like attributes being key to actor network ideas about the social life of non-human entities).

This video is about hospitals but there are more set in supermarkets and other places where the company installs pneumatic tube systems.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

natural history museums and boundary objects

Recently I have been re-reading work by the sociologist of science, Susan Leigh Star, for a paper I am writing with my supervisor. Sadly Susan Leigh Star died this year, unexpectedly, leaving a great sense of loss in her personal and professional worlds.

One of my favourite papers by Leigh Star (and James Griesemer) was 'Institutional ecology, 'translations' and boundary objects: amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907 - 1939' (Social Studies of Science 19(3): 387 - 420), which discusses the ways in which members of different social worlds coordinated their efforts in building the museum. Leigh Star and Griesemer's ethnographic study was ecological, in the sense that it included the perspectives of administrators, amateur collectors, professional trappers, farmers who served as occasional fieldworkers and zoologists. In this paper, the authors introduced the concept of the 'boundary object', which they explained as that which facilitates common understandings between multiple social worlds. It is a concept which has been used widely in the discipline of STS, and other areas of research, ever since.

I could not help but also think of this study when visiting the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart with my mother (see her own blog post about the visit here Home Tweet Home: Museum Visit). At the museum we did fieldstudies: I took photos of the zoology exhibits and mum sketched some beetles and butterflies for inspiration for her ceramics. Whilst we were photographing and sketching, we had a number of conversations - one with a visitor and another with a gallery guide – about the animals that we were picturing/drawing, and other tales of flora and fauna. The taxidermy was a boundary object in the very similar, almost literal, sense used by Leigh Star and James Griesemer, as something which facilitated an interaction between our different worlds of experience and interest.

This led me to wonder whether pneumatic tube systems are boundary objects? I am not sure if anyone has any thoughts on that? In many ways, the technology serves to facilitate multiple transactions between different worlds. For example, in hospitals, pneumatic tubes are considered, and used, quite differently by engineers, pathologists and nurses. But I wonder whether pneumatic tube systems are really 'plastic' in their adaption to local needs, or are they more structured?
Photos are my own.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

zorba and duct tape

In Stoic philosophy, pneuma is the active and creative presence in matter and exists in inanimate objects - including duct tape?

Thanks for the great guest photo Andy, of yet another use of duct tape.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

one of the earliest pneumatic tube systems in a hospital?

I recently came across an article called Pneumatic Tube Systems, in a 1966 issue of the British Medical Journal (1st January 1966, p49 - 50). Could it be mentioning one of the earliest pneumatic tube system infrastructures in a hospital?

SIR,- The use of pneumatic-tube transmission systems in general and in hospitals in particular is by no means new. Some of the earlier hospital systems received very adverse criticism, and this undoubtedly delayed progress of this efficient and speedy service so far as hospitals were concerned.

Recently a two-way point-to-point tube system by Dialled Despatches Ltd., Gosport, was installed in this department for the specific purpose of conveying exposed but undeveloped x-ray films from an x-ray room at a return clinic area to a developing room fitted with an automatic processing unit some 100 ft (30 meters) away at the other end of a long and relatively narrow building. Dry developed films are returned to the clinic in an average time of nine minutes. I believe that this may be the first tube system to be so used, and it has been found to be very effective in practice. The exposed film is removed from its cassette in a dark cubicle some 3 ft. square (0.8 sq. metre), marked with the patient's name, date, etc., rolled in its original packing paper in order to avoid unnecessary handling and static marks, and placed in the cylindrical aluminium carrier, which is then put into the sending tube. Two or even three films, if necessary, can be put into a carrier at any one time. The carriers are long enough to take the largest x-ray films, and are, of course, light-tight. The receiving end of the return tube has been separated from the sending tube, and is situated outside the dark cubicle so that the developed films can be delivered to the clinic without interrupting the radiographer. The cost of installation of this system was not greater than the cost of constructing and equipping a small but conventional darkroom, for which, in any case, there was insufficient space available in the area, and the need for additional dark-room technical assistance was avoided.

Although this simple point-to-point system was installed for one particular purpose, trials using special inserts in the carriers have shown that laboratory specimens and blood samples can be safely transmitted without damage or lysis. These experiments suggest that larger installations, either fully or semi-automatic, and relying on the operation of recently developed and much more reliable proximity switches, should play a major role in future hospital design and equipment. - I am, etc.,

A.M.Murray, Casualty Department, Royal Infirmary,
Glasgow C.4.

The article certainly seems to be detailing the very early use of pneumatic networks for transporting films and pathology samples. This x-ray system is undoubtedly a precursor to modern day electronic platforms, such as PACS, designed for the efficient transmission of radiological images, "without interrupting the radiographer".

correspondances pneumatiques

Some pneumatic post arrived in the mail last week, from my sister's fiancé, Jarek ...

... filled with wonderful photos from the Museé de la Post in Paris:

I love post with personality!

Thanks Jarek (and Dad for scanning the images).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

call for papers 2

These recent calls for papers tie in art, medicine and ethnography ...

AAH (The Association of Art Historians) Annual Conference 2011
31 March – 2 April, University of Warwick
Medical Media: The Aesthetic Language of Medical ‘Evidence’

Visual culture plays no small part in the field of medicine, historically and currently. In teaching and practice, the field has been and continues to be inundated with images: X-rays, before-and-after photographs, case records and illustrations, digital scans, recorded demonstrations, etc. At once document and representation, the image utilised for medical aims occupies a curious place, particularly when it is clear that the methods of its production have been mediated by the physician, the patient, and/or the artist-producer to emphasise its value as ‘evidence.’ The photograph is the most obvious, and yet far from sole, medium of medical imagery: three-dimensional models of varying media, posters, print media, and film have all played the role of ‘medical documentation.’ This session seeks to complicate the relationship between art and medicine as one in which images are passively illustrative of medical ideas or mechanisms, as visual simplifications of theories and practices. So too does it wish to investigate how medical ideas or devices affect perceptions and productions of art.The following questions are therefore posed: how has art – its grammar, forms, varying media – articulated or represented medical concepts, discoveries, inventions or models of perception?

How has medicine been understood through its visual culture? And how have medical explanations and new technologies informed aesthetic models and vocabularies? In other words, do Art and Medicine speak the same language? Diverse papers are welcomed from art and medical historians on any period and geographical location that explore new directions in the interconnected histories of these disciplines. Session Convenor:Tania Woloshyn, McGill University.

Artful Encounters: on ethnography, art and conservation
Seminar November 18 & 19, 2010, Maastricht

Although highly critical of its colonialist connotations, many artists today employ methods that traditionally belong to the academic discipline of anthropology. They claim to use ethnography as an integral component of their artistic practice (Foster, 1999; Desai, 2002). Those studying the arts (academic disciplines such as art history, cultural studies, etc., as well as more “applied” disciplines such as conservation) may use these very same ethnographic methods to understand and deal with art worlds (Morphy & Perkins, 2006; Van Saaze, 2009). Understanding contemporary art today therefore increasingly asks for an approach that is sensitive to local and changeable meanings, to process and the ephemeral qualities of works-in-progress, and to the ways in which the public sphere can become an arena for artistic investigation. This combined seminar stages a series of encounters between ethnographic artists, ethnographers of art, and conservation ethnographers within this methodological hall of mirrors. Of special interest is the process of documentation within ethnographies. How do ethnographers hold what they find? Methodology-handbooks as well as reflections about fieldwork discuss exhaustively the art and pitfalls of note-taking, interpretation, categorization, narration, and writing. Yet, the variety of means of documentation is much greater and different styles of documentation allow for different effects.

Artful Encounters wants to examine the interesting overlaps between academic ethnography on the one hand and artistic practice in its broadest sense – both its process and its conservation – on the other hand. The seminar has three aims: (1) to improve ethnographic research by sharing research experiences; (2) to explore overlaps and differences in ethnographic methods between two different but fundamentally connected positions: the artist as ethnographer and the ethnographer as artist; and (3) to investigate what the ethnographic research tradition could contribute to the field of artistic research.Through open discussion, paper presentations, workshops and special assignments participants are invited to
contribute to the revitalization of an old tradition by setting a new agenda in artistic practice and arts research.

Monday, October 18, 2010

duct tape: it’s useful for things you haven’t even thought of yet

My husband and I once stayed in a hotel in London that was held together almost entirely with duct tape*. The shower was taped onto the bedroom floor, the leaks in the communal bath fixed with wads of grimey grey strips and even the front door was 'ducted' into place.

Duct tape is a remarkable thing. According to Wikipedia, duct tape has saved the lives of NASA astronauts, can help with iphone glitches and even treat warts (the controversial treatment is otherwise known as duct tape occlusion therapy). Of course MacGyver always had some in his back pocket and The Duct Tape Guys know of a million more wackier uses. But the reason I am writing about duct tape on this blog, is that during a recent visit to a hospital pneumatic tube system (much more about this great trip in later posts), I found many of traces of the stuff:

Duct tape seems to epitomise the tinkering practices of adjustment and improvisation that happen in hospitals everyday. Duct tape patches things together, holds things in place, to make sure the job gets done. Flexible and cheap, it is found taped around many parts of the pneumatic tube system in this hospital.
And so, to finish up this post, a short announcement from Garrison Keillor for the American Duct Tape Council: "Duct tape, its just about the only thing that really works sometimes".
Photos taken by me.
Title of this post also from Garrison Keillor.
*also known as gaffer tape, tank tape or duck tape

Friday, October 15, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

pneumatic tube map of the week

The Prague postal system

For some wonderful blogs on the wonderful world of maps see: Graphic Sociology, Strange Maps and Urban Tick.

Pražská potrubní pošta map from O2.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

maintaining the pressure/vaccum

Technology is designed, and then it is used. Once any technology is put into use, it needs some form of maintenance. Looking at the maintenance required of pneumatic tube systems reveals all forms of tinkering and improvising and adapting.  

For example WIRED did a wonderful piece on the maintenance of the pneumatic sanitation system on Roosevelt Island. They talked to the Swedish contractors who "crawl through the pipes, find holes and repair them”, and find "all manner of things down the chutes that clog up the system ... Christmas trees, exercise equipment, computers, shelving and vacuum cleaners in the pipe. An electric frying pan jam turned out to be particularly troublesome". The engineers at the facility maintain the system with inventive practices, including devising ways to "drill long metal rods through the jams and then pull them out".

And whilst job advertisements for pneumatic tube system on-site Field Service Engineers state that the engineer will "provide preventive and corrective maintenance, emergency and paid service, start-up of current systems, user training, and promotion of company products & services as required", the job will no doubt involve all sorts of inventive practices that can never be captured in a job description.

Hospital pneumatic tube systems need a lot of maintenance, with their heavy traffic flows. By looking at how these systems are maintained, we can learn a lot more about the colourful life of the technology and about the creative ways in which humans will tinker with its parts.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

pneumatic transportation: the stuff of dreams

For centuries, the concept of human transportation via pneumatic tube has captured the imagination of entrepreneurs, novelists, tinkerers and inventors.  I have already posted about the grandest dreamer of them all, Alfred Beach, whose pneumatic subway system was thwarted by politics and personal vendettas. 

Speeding into the future, the world of Futurama is connected via a vast pneumatic tube network.  Whilst Beach’s subway was never realised in its original form, and Futurama’s system is the stuff of science fiction, there are nonetheless a number of ways in which humans can be catapulted through the atmosphere via pneumatics.  There are the nifty elevators for one, and now something which has recently captured my attention, the shweeb.  OK, so the shweeb doesn’t really count as pneumatic transport (and is much more about pedal power), but it certainly resembles a pneumatic capsule.  Google has recently backed the invention, with many asking: why?  Should such inventions remain the stuff of dreams and TV shows?

Beach pneumatic plan from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

gang à l’aspirateur 2

Known in French as the "cambrioleurs aspirateur" or “gang à l’aspirateur", the vacuum burglars have led to a flurry of comments on forums around the internet. Here is a run of posts I liked in particular, on

"It doesn’t make much sense — the only transport systems
I’ve seen like this indeed use negative pressure to get the vessels from one
side of the building to another, but when they land in the safe, they exit the
tube system after passing a venturi-like bypass…re-sucking wouldn’t return the
tubes to the pipe. something fishy is being reported.

Posted at 9:45 am on Sep 24th, 2010 by

@Frollard : I believe they are intercepting the money as
it’s going through the tube, not “sucking it back out”.

Posted at 1:18 pm on Sep 24th, 2010 by

they probably broke in at night, used the valve where the
tube connects to the safe, drilled through it because its definitely the weakest
point, and then put a vacuum into the safe to grab the

Posted at 3:28 pm on Sep 24th, 2010 by

a simple spring loaded check valve like flap placed over the
pipe in the safe should prevent that.

the bank’s vacuum is probably in the safe so it would suck
open the flap to let the money in but someone applying vacuum from the teller
window will suck the valve shut and not get the money.

if they are lucky they may get the money holder tank if the
bank is big enough to have multiple teller windows or the tubes are stored

Posted at 6:06 pm on Sep 24th, 2010 by

Sunday, October 3, 2010


When I was searching for images for a lecture I am giving tomorrow on surveillance medicine, I happened to come across this fantastic cartoon by Abner Dean.  It shows Orwell's Winston at his speakwrite (see previous post), with pneumatic capsules falling onto his desk.

Image from The Fugue's Flikr page.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

artists in residence

I've often thought it would be great to work with an artist on project about pneumatic tubes in hospitals. A couple of months ago I started talking to my brother-in-law about a sound project here in Melbourne (and would love to continue the conversation Andy!). Sociologists are increasingly working with artists at their fieldsites (see this blog about ethnography-art collaborations) to explore themes about medicine, science and technology amongst others.

There are arts-based projects in hospital contexts such as Hearing Voices, Seeing Things, the two-year program of residencies with staff and users at North East London Mental Health Trust led by artists Bob and Roberta Smith and Jessica Voorsanger, and Transplant, a collaborative piece of work from Tim Wainwright and John Wynne. Both of these projects explore themes central to many sociological studies of health and illness. Katerina Cizek's filmaker-in-residence project at St Michael's Hospital in Toronto was also incredibly sociological.

Artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Christina Lammers, Bill Viola, Heather Spears and Christine Borland have had residencies in hospitals, akin to hospital ethnographies. Barbara Hepworth produced a wonderful series of fenestration drawings of her time in ENT theatres, whilst Bill Viola's installation Science of the Heart is from his time at Memorial Medical Centre in Long Beach, New York. Heather Spears spends her residencies in neonatal intensive care units whilst Christine Borland spent a week at the University of Alberta Hospital, producing a piece of work presented in the exhibition, Imagining Science, at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Borland worked with two patients having kidney biopsies, taking photographs at the start of the procedure, then accompanied the tissue through its journey through the many processes of the Pathology Laboratory. It is a work which I think has a lot of relevance to the role of pneumatic tube systems in hospitals for the artwork brought the patient into the laboratory and the experience of the laboratory to the patient:

“Throughout the week (of her residency) the artist tread a path between the lab and the wards, building an intense, personal relationship with the patients and staff at each end. For the patients the ‘end product’ was a 10 minute long, self-running PowerPoint presentation of the hundreds of images documenting their journey through the hospital and laboratory system. As the patients watched this for the first time, entirely absorbed while it was presented to them on the artist’s lap-top, they were filmed from a tiny camera embedded in the frame of the laptop screen which captured their reactions and expressions in the most non-mediated way possible”

Artists are also taking up residencies in genetic research institutes and natural history museums, and their work is being shown in hospitals and other medical sites.

Artistic representations explore research topics in more ambiguous and incomplete ways than academia often allows, this work evoking different stories on common subjects. There are many parallels between artist-in-residencies and ethnographic fieldwork which are interesting to think about. No doubt ethnographers can learn from artists and vice versa. Collaborative work between sociologists and artists raises a number of theoretical and methodological issues which are challenging and potentially rewarding to investigate. There is a lot of exciting work happening in this area, and pneumatic tubes is only one topic, amongst many, that could be explored.

The photo was taken by Thomas, as part of a photographic study of overseas doctors' practices in Australian hospitals, in collaboration with my ethnographic work at this site.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

in translation

Pneumatic tube systems are used around the world in many different contexts. I've been exploring some of these on this blog, focusing on hospitals in particular.

Despite firms claims of standardisation in engineering, many sociologists of science have shown that technology is used differently in local settings of practice. This is something I would like to examine a lot further, and I am interested in how pneumatic tube systems are adapted for different cultural contexts. When considering these questions, it is necessary to think about pneumatic tubes in new ways. Translating the term is a start, and here is a wonderful list on the great website buispost:

Czechish - Potrubní pošta

Dutch - Buispost / buizenpost

English - Pneumatic tube system / pneumatic tube / pneumatic tube air system / pneumatic mail / pneumatic post / pneumatic conveying system / tubemail

Finnish – Putkiposti

French - Transport pneumatique / tube pneumatique

German - Rohrpost / röhrenpost

Italian - Posta pneumatica / trasporto pneumatico / tubi pneumatici

Polish - Poczta pneumatyczna

Russian - Пневматическая почта

Spanish - Transporte neumático

Swedish – Rörpost

Are there any others to add to the list?

Photos very possibly from a love hotel (see previous post) on Flikr.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

wanted! vacuum burglars!

A recent article in The Sun shows that there is no end to the creative use of pneumatic tubes:

"A GANG of thieves armed with a powerful vacuum cleaner that sucks cash from supermarket safes has struck for the FIFTEENTH time in France. The burglars broke into their latest store near Paris and drilled a hole in the "pneumatic tube" that siphons money from the checkout to the strong-room. They then sucked rolls of cash totalling £60,000 from the safe without even having to break its lock. Police said the gang — dubbed the Vacuum Burglars — always raid Monoprix supermarkets and have hit 15 of the stores branches around Paris in the past four years. A spokesman added: "They spotted a weakness in the company's security system and have been exploiting it ever since. Since 2006 they have stolen more than 500,000 euros and caused damage to alarm systems and other property totalling thousands more. It is clearly time Monoprix addressed this loophole and changed the way it guards its money.""

Great use of the word loophole!

Could this spate of robberies spell the end for pneumatic tubes in supermarkets (see this video for a demonstration of how the system works in this setting)? What does it mean for banks, where telescreens and pneumatic tubes are being installed in 'remote teller stations' to increase efficiency and improve safety and security?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

the invisible work of pneumatic tubes

When I was in Japan I read 1984 for the first time. It seemed a pretty timely thing to do straight after a science and technology conference. Of course so much of George Orwell's futuristic vision has played out in real-time (one of the papers I mentioned in the last post, about telemonitoring of patients in their own home, springs to mind immediately), whilst other aspects remain in the realm of fantasy and fiction.

An important part of Orwell's 1984-future, at the organisational level, was communication via pneumatic tube.

"With the deep, unconscious sigh which not even the nearness of the telescreen could prevent him from uttering when his day's work started, Winston pulled the speakwrite towards him, blew the dust from its mouthpiece and put on his spectacles. Then he unrolled and clipped together four small cylinders of paper which had already flopped out of the pneumatic tube on the right-hand side of his desk" (p40).

The pneumatic tube was one of three important 'orifices' in Winston's office space - the other two were for newspapers and the waste-disposal slit, or memory hole. It is from the pneumatic tubes where most of Winston's work arrives; the work of rewriting history. One day there is fragment of paper which blatently documents the lies behind this history work, rolled up with the other papers in the tube.

The pneumatic tube system is part of the invisible workings of the Ministry, part of the invisible work of totalitarian control:

"What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail, but he did know in general terms" (p42).

In many ways, pneumatic tubes are still part of the invisible work of organisations, retaining that historic/futuristic feel that Orwell captures incredibly well in 1984. It is this invisible work, the work that happens backstage, that makes pneumatic tubes such an interesting site of analysis and a technology which captures the imagination of writers and the public.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

love pneumatic tubes

Whilst I haven't posted for a month on pneumaticpost, I have certainly been thinking about pneumatic tubes, reading about them, and posting of a different sort - postcards. From Japan.

Japan. Home of raw fish, tatami mats, pachinko and parasols. Home of love hotels, where rooms are bought at the touch of a button and bills settled via pneumatic tubes (all in the interest of discretion of course)!

I was in Japan for a holiday and to attend the Society for Social Studies of Science's annual meeting. The conference was held at the University of Tokyo, tucked away off tiny streets near Shibuya and the wonderful Japan Folk Crafts Museum. Sessions were held in classrooms with wooden desks and blackboards, whilst crickets chittered in the humid air. I gave a paper about adjustment (here are my slides) and heard some fantastic talks about anatomical museums, biobanks, telemonitoring, online patient feedback systems and genetics. It was a small and friendly conference, and the attendees bonded by hanging out around the pond, guessing noodle dishes or waiting for drinks from the vending machine, paper fans flapping. I hope I'll keep in contact with many of the great people I met there.

On the last night of the conference my husband flew in from Melbourne and we continued to explore Tokyo together. The technology around us was often mesmerising. We watched all our fellow subway passengers silently connect to their mobile phones, passed shops with displays of the latest gadgets, saw an exhibition where our biometric data was recorded and we interacted digitally with our fellow gallery goers. And yet, amidst this new technology, alongside the retinal scanning and artificial intelligence, we saw signs of older technologies too. We hopped on a little tram, from one part of Tokyo to another - the last tram in the city - and caught a train with brass fittings and bankers' lights in the dining cart. One night a vintage car hurtled past, with two young hipsters snug and smug inside. There was a certain nostalgia for the technological past, that nestled within a thirst for the new. It is something I often think about in relation to pneumatic tubes, and the nostalgic associations that many people have with them. Something to further consider, and more posts from my time in Japan to come ...

Photos of nostalgic transportation are my own.

Friday, August 20, 2010

vintage stamps

On a more general postal matter, I have been increasingly dismayed by the dull stamp designs on offer each month by Australia Post. When they raised the price of local postage by another 5c recently, I finally cracked and have started searching elsewhere for beautiful stamps. Soon I found a philatelic treasure chest in a stamp and coin store in the city, in the form of a shoe box of unused vintage stamps. Here is a sample:

Now I have much more fun making up 60c on my letters and postcards! For those in America, this blog post mentions a good source for unused vintage stamps, and there is always ebay or etsy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

building as both a noun and a verb

A call for papers from the Cultural-Theory-Space Group at the University of Plymouth, for the conference "Fixed? Architecture, Incompleteness and Change" raises some interesting questions that are relevant to thinking about pneumatic tube infrastructure in buildings such as hospitals:
"Are buildings fixed objects? At what point is a work of architecture complete? Architects tend to consider a building as finished, fixed, upon the completion of building works. The unpopulated images of shiny new buildings in the architectural press are presented as a record of the building as a ‘pure’ art-object at its temporal zenith; the occupation of the building and its subsequent adaptation, alteration, personalization and appropriation by people is often perceived in terms of decline. ‘Fixed?’ aims to question this view of architecture.

An alternative perspective is that all buildings are incomplete and subject to change over time as the users constantly alter and adapt their surroundings in response to changing cultural and technological conditions. Architecture is appropriated both intentionally and instinctively. In this way, often beyond the control of the architect, through their lifecycle all architectures become responsive to people and place. In theoretical terms, a work of architecture can therefore be interpreted not only as an ambiguous physical form but also as a shifting, responsive cultural construct.

Proposals for both theoretical discussion and case-study based papers are invited that engage with or challenge the theme of incompleteness and change across architecture, design and the built environment. Possible strands include: - changing, transient and adaptive everyday architectures and modern vernaculars - the afterlife, use, occupation, adaptation and appropriation of ‘fixed’ designed buildings, spaces and places - architects responses to the challenge of incompleteness and life-cycle design"
The deadline for submissions is November 30th 2010 and more information can be found here.

The conference raises interesting questions about technologies in buildings such as hospitals which are usually outdated by the time they are built. Hospitals are often considered 'fixed' buildings, adhering to the 'order' of biomedicine, yet I found in my PhD research that hospitals are much more open to the creative practices of its inhabitants. My recent tour of a pneumatic tube system in a Melbourne hospital certainly reiterated that this is also the case with pneumatic systems.

The idea of incomplete buildings is aligned with mat-building philosophy, a great example of which was
Le Corbusier's (never built) Venice Hospital Project, represented in these collages in the MoMA collection. The conference will no doubt raise interesting points about how users adapt to architectural infrastructures, and how architecture adjusts to its users.

Sketch of one of the hospitals where I did fieldwork for my PhD, by my father, John Harris.

Monday, August 16, 2010

moving trash underground

One use for pneumatic tube systems, that I have not previously covered on this blog, is garbage collection.

A recent exhibition at Gallery RIVAA explored the way that garbage moves through tubes under Roosevelt Island, New York. The Roosevelt Island underground pneumatic waste disposal system was constructed in 1975. Since the opening of the island, residents have emptied their waste into garbage chutes which feed into pneumatic pipes that are transferred to the system's main station and then compacted, sealed off and exported to a landfill. There are many other cities where similar systems are in place, including waste disposal systems in hospitals and nursing homes.

Fast Trash was described on the exhibition website as:
"Part infrastructure portrait, part urban history ... [drawing on] archival materials, original maps, photographs, drawings, diagrams and video interviews to bring an invisible system to the surface, and asks what a community built around progressive policies and technologies can teach us about how we choose our infrastructure"
The exhibition received a lot of attention from bloggers (green bloggers, urbanite bloggers, architectural bloggers, art bloggers, NYC bloggers) and others online, demonstrating a public fascination with this technology. I particularly like this image of those working with the system, depicted in a New York Times review:
"The staff of eight full-time engineers perform regular repairs and maintenance on the system, monitoring the vacuum seals and gauges, which are often on the fritz. They have halted the engines for residents who panicked about missing false teeth, wedding rings and pocket books that have been sucked under the city’s streets. And even let them sift through a 12-ton pile of refuse"
For those interested, the exhibition website has a documentary, another site an interview with curator/architect Juliette Spertus, and here and here are some images from the exhibition. I would love to have seen the exhibition. With its video interviews with engineers, maps and other artefacts, it seems like an incredibly ethnographic portrait of pneumatic tubes; one that has captured the public's imagination.

Images from envac and fast trash.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

not just a big truck

Several days ago, the former US Senator Ted Stevens died in a plane crash in Alaska. A strong opponent of net neutrality, he famously, or infamously referred to the Internet as, not a truck where you dump things, but rather a "series of tubes" (see this excerpt from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart for a send-up and mention of pneumatic tubes - dubbed the information supertube - at the end, or here for a Techno Remix of Stevens' words).

The phrase, "a series of tubes", has been used by many in reference to pneumatic tubes, with links made between this communication/transportation technology and the Internet.

Image by Molly Steenson, taken at the New York Public Library whilst she was researching for her presentation "A Series of Tubes" about pneumatic tubes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

call for papers

A Call for Papers has just been put out by the journal Philosophy and Technology
. They write that:
"Technologies have been changing the world for a long time, at an increasing pace, with ever expanding scope and unprecedented impact. They profoundly affect human life and are radically modifying not only how we interact with, shape, and make sense of our world, but also how we look at ourselves and understand our position and responsibilities in the universe"
I'm not sure how considerably pneumatic tube systems are changing our position within the universe, but it is certainly interesting to think about how a 19th century, industrial era technology is changing hospital practices.

I took this photo at my favourite medical museum, Museum Boerhaave, in Leiden, Netherlands.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

personalised pneumatic tube system

Definitely not a quasi, pseudo, semi-feminist statement like Old Spice, a new Heineken commercial nonetheless brings pneumatic tubes into the home ...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

the inadequacies of job descriptions

At the beginning of his popular presentation for TED, Barry Schwartz outlines the job requirements of a hospital janitor. He points out that none of these requirements mention anything that involves other human beings, yet when janitors were interviewed by psychologists, much of their work involved human interactions and a degree of improvisation and 'practical wisdom'.

I was interested in the job requirements of hospital technicians who may be dealing with pneumatic tubes, and came across these job advertisements for a lab tech at Ochsner Health System and a diagnostic scheduling technician at St Luke’s Health System:

Lab Tech: Gross Room, Ochsner Health System

Duties: Accessions surgical cases, biopsies and autopsy specimens from various departments, and clients via Central Specimen Receiving (CSR), the train, pneumatic tube or courier. Verifies patient’s demographics, accessions patient information and test requested in Laboratory Computer. Accurately labels specimen containers tissue cassettes with assigned number. Assist Pathologist and residents in the gross dissection room. Maintains record of Gross Room workload and data entry. Records all specimen errors or discrepancies. Performs staining, autopsy specimen procurement under direct supervision by a Pathologist, Pathologist Assistant or Histopathology Supervisor. Demonstrates actions consistent with Ochsner Expectations as duties are performed on a daily basis.

Diagnostic Scheduling Technician, St. Luke's Health System

Duties: 7. Operates medical center equipment such as computers and software, phone systems, paging systems, intercoms, fax machines, copy machines, pneumatic tube system, and printers in order to perform the duties of the job. Accept change in a positive and professional manner while willingly learning unfamiliar tasks.

Whilst the job descriptions do mention work with other people (I have only included a section of the second job description), they do not explicitly describe the work that I am interested in: the adjustments, the ‘repair work’, the tinkering that technicians perform to get their work done. There are hints of this buried in words such as ‘record discrepancies’, ‘accept change’, ‘learn unfamiliar tasks’, however so much is left out. Although when does a job description ever really describe a job?

Monday, August 2, 2010

more tubes on the tube

I spent a little time, one evening, not so long ago, watching more YouTube clips about pneumatic tubes. I thought I'd share a few for those who might also want to while away some time in the rumbling whoosh of a few pneumatic tube systems.

Winner of the best catch-phrase went to Quick Tube System for their
“If we can lift it, we can land it … and we can land it soft” film clip. The sequel proves it by landing a capsule on an egg. There are a few promotional videos, here and here, and several computer animated models, including this rather mesmerising one with a groovy soundtrack. There is a glass tube trip and an interview with Stanford Hospital’s Chief Engineer, Leander Robinson, who plants a videocamera into a capsule during the video. For a few seconds there is a wonderful split screen capture of the inside and outside of the tube, and then a tracking of the capsule simultaneously on a computer screen. Finally, who would have thought that there would be a film noir made about pneumatic tubes? Below is the film clip for “Through a tube darkly” produced in association with St Olav’s Hospital and Swisslog.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

further tales from the underground

I have recently finished reading the chapter about Alfred Beach's pneumatic underground idea in Paul Collins' Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck . There is a wonderful section in this chapter which describes the opening of the doomed Beach Pneumatic Transit Company, 260 Broadway in New York City. When reading this passage, I couldn't help but recall the sets of several recently released films, so have inserted pictures from these between the text (any guesses which films?).

Collins describes how journalists and politicians arrived at an unassuming building for the opening where they were ushered down the back steps into a cellar.

However it was no longer a cellar anymore but a comfortable office, and a few steps down, guests found themselves in a room
“120 feet long and ablaze with gaslit chandeliers, spread out before them ...

... Fine paintings hung upon the walls, lavish tables of champagne and hors d’oeuvres had been laid out, a fountain glittered with its stock of goldfish, and sumptuously upholstered couches awaited the visitors; in one corner a piano was playing, its notes echoing through the subterranean lair … beyond the edge of this cavernous room, brilliantly lit up, lay something that no New Yorker above or below had seen before: a subway car” (From Banvard's Folly, p156).
One wonders whether these set designers were inspired by the evocative image of pianos and champagne and other treasures underground? Banvard's Folly is a great read, and one that I would recommend if you are interested not only in a good story, but also some of the economic, political and other social events shaping pneumatic tube technologies of the past.