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.

fantasy post

Last week I mentioned a research scholarship from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

This museum certainly seems to have expertise in pneumatic post, with an online exhibition, details of a pneumatic post children's program and the story of a most wonderful piece of pneumatic mail with "fantasy markings". The markings "TUBE STA. / TRANSIT" were not applied by the Chicago Post Office to this piece of mail but rather later, mysteriously, at an unknown date. Postal historians followed various clues to try and uncover the story of this piece of mail, such as the style of lettering, lack of time and date, and the infrastructure of the pneumatic system in operation at that time.

The fantasy piece of mail reveals something about the social context of pneumatic post in Chicago during the early 20th Century; a little look into the past workings of a pneumatic system, through stamps and other markings.

Image of a cover transported in the Chicago pneumatic tube system from the National Postal Museum site.

Monday, July 26, 2010

the pneumatic underground

On the weekend, many buildings opened their doors in Melbourne as part of Melbourne Open House. It was wonderful being in the city on Sunday along with so many others on urban treasure hunts. After traipsing around rooftop gardens and coffee in Denmark House with friend Annie, I joined the queue to see the Russell Place substation. A tour promised to take all those patient enough to wait in line through a series of stairs to the main transformer transfer corridor, DC rooms, switch rooms and transformer compartments.

Photos from Russell Place Substation tour 2009, DSC_9694 and DSC_9660 originally uploaded by Boumba

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, I did not have a chance to see the workings of Melbourne's electrical supply this year. However, the intense public interest in this site made me realise how fascinated people are by the 'inner workings' of our urban spaces. This led me to wonder about pneumatic tours in a city, in banks, supermarkets and of course hospitals. I know that during Atlas Obsura's Obsura Day, on March 20th this year, there was a tour of Stanford Hospital's pneumatic tube system by chief engineer Leander Robinson. What a great idea! It is a potentially fantastic way to bring together those interested in this topic together in person (who often chat online), as well as potentially drawing in a wider public to explore the magic of pneumatic tubes.

Post title from Banvard's Folly by Paul Collins.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

pneumatic postage

There are tracks and traces left by pneumatic systems of the past, particularly postal systems. For example, there are a number of postage stamps in circulation issued in Italy that were used especially for pneumatic post (other countries allowed users to pay with regular postage). The Web Urbanist, whose post I commented on previously, suggests that "one wishes the engravers would have used the mechanics of Italy’s pneumatic mail network for their subject matter". Imagine a set of pneumatic post stamps of the kind that artist Donald Evans created, with miniature watercolours of different parts of the system ...

Perhaps a scholarship from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum might provide the funds for an aspiring pneumatic postal artist (deadline September 1st 2010)?

Images from artpool.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

following a pneumatic capsule

How do you follow a capsule in the pneumatic tube system, during its travels around a hospital in one day?

Two of my favourite academics, Annemarie Mol and Jessica Mesman, talks about the limits of following actors, in reference to actor-network theory and a hospital ethnography:
J had read that she should follow the actor. But after following the medium care neonatologist around for a day, J came home exhausted because the man walked so fast. And what about the pieces of paper that travel from ward to the dispensary? J couldn’t enter the hospital’s postal system with them, for its plastic tubes were big enough for forms, but far too small for human bodies (Mol and Mesman 1996, p422 – 423)
I have been thinking about the challenge of literally following a capsule. There have to be other ways of mapping the life of a capsule as it traverses a hospital system, that do not involve being shrunk to the size of a pathology sample Innerspace style.

In a previous post I referred to a German video where a camera had been sent on an explosive journey through a pneumatic tube system. Perhaps another method may be to attach a GPS tracker to a capsule? Take for example artist Jeremy Wood's 'Traverse me: Warwick campus map for pedestrians'. The intricate GPS drawing is a personalised tour of the university's campus, compiled over 17 days of walking with a GPS device. The map has also been superimposed over photographs of some of the locations Jeremy Wood visited on his travels. Is this one way to draw a day in the life of a pneumatic tube capsule?

Image 89 or is that 68?, originally uploaded by pathlost on Flikr.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

nonist's beautiful specimens

On previous posts, here and here, I have included photographs of vintage microscopic slides, but none have been as exquisite as the range that the nonist carefully collated on his blog, as sourced from a number of fantastic sites listed at the end of his post. I know that microscopic slides are not strictly related to pneumatic tubes, but perhaps there is some link between microscopic samples, pathology, Victorian science and medicine, handcrafted details or ...?

Images via the nonist.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A postcard from the Hellenic republic

In Stoic philosophy, pneuma (πνεũμα) is the “breath of life”, a mixture of air and fire. The term originated among Greek medical writers who located human vitality in the breath. Pneuma is the active and creative presence in matter and exists in inanimate objects, where it is called ‘state’ or ‘tenor’. As John Sellars writes, “the material world itself has pneumatic qualities”.

Were the Stoics considering objects ‘actors’ before the actor-network theorists? What are the hospital’s pneumatic qualities? How will the Stoics help in thinking philosophically, metaphorically, about the contemporary pneuma-tic system of hospitals?

The postcard depicts Kos island, where Hippocrates practiced medicine, teaching under the tree depicted in the stamp. Information in this post is from Wikipedia, Stoicism by John Sellars and The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy edited by Keimpe Algra, Jonathan Barnes, Jaap Mansfeld and Malcolm Schofield.

Monday, July 12, 2010

flickr-ing tubes

There is some great Creative Commons-licensed pneumatic tube content on flikr that I am looking forward to exploring, such as this photo from Thomas Hawk's incredible hospital photo set.

A Series of Tubes, originally uploaded by Thomas Hawk.

Friday, July 9, 2010

pneumatic sounds

In previous posts I have commented on the sounds of pneumatic tubes, and lately I have been having some fantastic conversations with my brother-in-law about the acoustics of these hospital systems. Andy has previously directed me towards great sounds sites such as soundtransit and the soundscape journal.

In hospitals, I remember reading on a hospital ethnography mailing list about Lindsey Messervy's Masters of Design Ethnography topic on the sonic environment of hospitals (I have looked but cannot find any further information about the project, and any links would be greatly appreciated). Anthropologist Tom Rice has published work on the acoustics of cardiac auscultation and the stethoscope, whilst hospital artist-in-residence John Wynne discusses the auditory dimensions of his collaborative work with photographer Tim Wainwright on a transplant ward at Harefield Hospital (both of the hyperlinks in this paragraph have audiofiles included).

The sound of pneumatic tubes was mentioned in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (February 11 1993, 328 (6): 433 - 437) entitled "Pandemonium in the modern hospital". Author Gerald Grumet notes that "a pneumatic-tube carrier arrives with a 88-dB(A) thud". I can't help but include a longer quote from this article:
"The modern hospital, where the previously serene milieu is gradually being debased by a sonic assault on the ears and psyche. The hospital atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s was one of austere silence, as in a library reading room. Hallways displayed a ubiquitous picture of a uniformed nurse, finger to the lips, sometimes accompanied by the words, "Quiet Please." Signs on the street read, "Hospital Zone - Quiet." The occasional overheard page for a physician signaled a true emergency. But that subdued setting has gradually been replaced by one of turbulence and frenzied activity. People not dart about in a race against time; telephones ring loudly; intercom systems blare out abrupt, high-decibel messages that startle the unsuspecting listener. These sounds are superimposed on a collection of beeps and whines from an assortment of electronic gadgets - pocket pagers, call buttons, telemetric monitoring systems, electronic intravenous machines, ventilator alarms, patient-activity monitors, and computer printers. The hospital, designed as a places of healing and tranquility for patients and of scholarly exchanges among physicians, has become a place of beeping, buzzing, banging, clanging, and shouting" (Grumet 1993, p433).
I wonder if there are any recordings of the austere silence of serene days gone by? This seems rather romantically nostalgic to me. Or have advances in technology meant that there are more sounds in the hospital? Has the pneumatic tube been a rumbling constant through the years, or has that also changed? Do these sounds detract from hospitals as places of healing as Grumet suggests, or are they part of the therapeutic soundscape?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

visual ideas

There is a fantastic video from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) which has been doing the rounds of a few blogs such as Somatosphere and Savage Minds, called Crises of Capitalism. The video is an animated version of a talk that sociologist David Harvey gave at the RSA recently.

The video is not only great in terms of its content, but also visually. It reminded me of Beck Tench's hand-drawn PowerPoint slides (linked to from Museum 2.0) and Garrick Jones' presentation at the Virtual Knowledge Studio's 'Can You See What I Know' in 2008. All of these presentations are inspiring ways of sharing research visually.

Slides from

Video from CYSWIK @ PICNIC day one by Darren Carter on Vimeo.

Monday, July 5, 2010

pneumatic tubes in blogosphere

Pneumatic tubes have been the subject of one or two chat forums, and some fantastic blog posts. On the 'In the Public Domain' chat forum, there is a conversation about Stanford Hospital's network, tubes at Denver International airport and some links to YouTube videos. Conversation drifts into science fiction fantasy and high-tech imaginings.

The wonderful Web Urbanist provides extensive coverage on the tubes. The Web Urbanist post has details of Alfred Beach's 19th century pneumatic subway, cash railways, postal systems, steampunk aesthetics and novel uses of the technology in watch stores and coffee houses. The post mentions hospitals too:
When moving small packages quickly from one place to another within a self-contained area, pneumatic tube systems can’t be beat. Indeed, modern tube networks are installed in new hospitals, older systems are added to and original systems just keep on ticking along, as they have very few moving parts to wear out. Hospitals are ideal locations for tube systems; they move medical samples from one area to another quickly – and in hospitals, speed can save lives.
And finally, for today's post, there is Curious Expedition's Pneu York, Pneu York, which has snippets about a cat flying through the New York postal network and stories of how employees of the Waldorf-Astoria used their system for gossip. The post describes how many of New York's pneumatic tube systems were dismantled in the 20th century, except for the NY Humanities and Social Sciences library, where book requests are sent down to the stacks, seven floors below the ground, via pneumatics, with the books then appearing on an oval ferris wheel. Finally, there is the tale of pneumatic tube system vs bicycle in Prague:
“We had a race once between us, a bicycle courier, and a dispatch van to see who could get an identical parcel to [Czech President Vaclav] Havel up at the castle,” recalls Jiri Lilling, one of nine engineers who maintain the pneumatic network. “It was rush hour, so the van took an hour. The bicycle took 25 minutes. But our parcel was there in 4 minutes.”
Image via Curious Expeditions.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

academic pneumatic

Occasionally I come across the specific mention of hospital pneumatic tube systems in academic material. This might be in a hospital ethnography for example, such as CT Suite: The Work of Diagnosis in the Age of Noninvasive Cutting.
"In one corner of the Scheduling office there is a pneumatic tube column. Forms and schedules are placed in cylindrical containers and launched to destinations throughout the department - mostly on the second floor. This system has been around 'for a long time'; a change to a computerized tube system is anticipated" (p184)
I am half-way through CT Suite, which is an intricately detailed study of the practices associated with CT scanning. In his work, anthropologist Barry Saunders combines theoretical insights from a range of fields, such as photographic history, with the minutiae of his observations and overheard conversations. The book captures the CT suite in transition, with a writing style that is simultaneously dry/uncluttered, and filled with rich description and metaphor.