Thursday, March 31, 2011

dusty digital archives

Some of you may have been reading texts from the Internet Archive for some time (my brother-in-law sent me a wonderful link to a Kite book several years ago), but I have recently rediscovered this amazing resource after receiving this email in my inbox:
I work with the Medical Heritage Library and I was hoping to be able to bring our resources to the attention of your discussion list by having the MHL included in your list of Web resources. The MHL is a collaboration of major research libraries in the United States, including the Francis A.Countway Library of Medicine, the National Library of Medicine, the Columbia Library of Health Sciences, and the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. We digitize and make available through the Internet Archive ( a wide range of materials pertaining to the history of medicine, including texts on military medicine, general surgery and surgical history, spiritualism, sanitation, hygiene, tropical medicine, medical jurisprudence, psychology, gynecology, phrenology, crimes, criminology, electrotherapeutics, climatology, and homeopathy. (For a fuller list of topics, go here:!) -Hanna
Although searching through these archives did not have the same feel as winding up the stacks or dusting off marbled covers, with a few strikes of my keyboard and a couple of clicks I found a treasure of publications about pneumatic tubes.

These time-worn digital books included the facts and general information relating to pneumatic despatch tubes of the Batcheller Pneumatic Tube Co., a report of the Postmaster-general to Congress relative to an inviestigation of pneumatic tubes systems for delivering mail and a brailed, stamped copy of the concise treatment of the principles, methods and applications of pneumatic conveyance.

The Internet Archive is certainly a site to linger and travel back to. In fact you can travel back, way back, in time using the marvellous
WayBack Machine, which I have been using for my research. Beware, this is a site to get lost in for hours!

Images from The Pneumatic Despatch Tube System.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

tubes for drella

This week I went to see a great dance performance by Scapino Ballet called Songs for Drella, which was a tribute to Andy Warhol. The reason I mention this is because of the presumedly little known fact that Warhol was a fan of pneumatic tube systems.

A lover of "good plain American" food, who believed that "progress is very important and exciting in everything except food", Andy Warhol once helped design a restaurant which served homely comfort food (i.e. re-heated frozen dinners). Called the "Andy-Mat", the restaurant (which never eventuated), was going to include a system where customers' orders would be sent to the kitchen via pneumatic tube.

This seems a rather progressive way of ordering un-progressive food! The un-realised system sounds like a precursor to the digital hand-held ordering machines now used regularly by waitresses.

Photo and quotes from "Restaurant-ing through history" blog of Warhol and his partners, [standing L to R] architect Araldo Cossutta, developer Geoffrey Leeds, and financier C. Cheever Hardwick III.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

smart houses

Last week I read about smart houses designed in the 1980s. The houses studied by Anne-Jorunn Berg were prototypes designed by international electronic corporations as innovative homes of the future. These houses had motion-activated light control systems, washing machines that signaled on the television screen when the washing was ready to be moved to the dryer and a vacuum cleaner programmed to stop when the doorbell rang.

Berg argues that these houses were designed with no notion of housework in mind, that women’s housework skills were entirely neglected as a design source. However she also points out that technology’s impacts are not entirely determined by designer’s intentions, but is rather open to "interpretive flexibility".

I couldn't help but think when readign of this of the interpretive flexibility taking place in the 'smart house' in Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex, where the protagonist's brother has a lot of fun with a pneumatic door system.

The family moved into a house designed in 1909 in Middlesex, filled with glass walls and intercoms. The author writes: "Middlesex! Did anybody ever live in a house as strange? As sci-fi? As futuristic and outdated at the same time? A house that was more like communism, better in theory than reality?"

By the time the family moved into the house in the 1960s "you might speak into the kitchen intercom only to have your voice come out in the master bedroom. The speakers distorted our voices, so that we had to listen very closely to understand what was being said, like deciphering a child's first, garbled speech". The architect, Hudson Clark, didn't believe in doors and instead the house was installed with "long, accordian-like barriers, made from sisal, that worked by a pneumatic pump located down in the basement". Pretty soon the brother tapped into the pneumatic system in the basement and spent hours sending a Ping-Pong ball around the house through the network of vacuum cleaner hoses.

I think that there is a lot of interpretive flexibility taking place with pneumatic tube systems wherever they are found. Lunches are sent between hospital departments, secret notes tucked in capsules to plan rendez-vous, and many other interpretations of the technology taking place everyday. A great example of this creativity can also be found in the Heineken commercial ... see this post for video.

Image is from this Heineken commercial. See also this great image of smart doors too in the MOMA collection.

Berg, A-J. (1999). A gendered socio-technical construction: the smart house. In D. MacKenzie and J. Wajcman (eds), the Social Shaping of Technology, pp 301 - 313. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

long live lovely long sentences

Short is sweet. Tweet is short. Contemporary communication is all about brevity, as Jenny Cool writes in her recent Savage Minds post. But what about the wondrous, locaquious, seemingly endless enjoyment of a lovely long sentence?

In celebration of the long sentence, here is one I came across in the book I am reading at the moment, The Way by Swann's by master of the long sentence, Marcel Proust, so please stay with me, there are pneumatic tubes mentioned at the end (and also for your reference, the sentence follows a brief passage concerning Monsieur Swann's tortured struggle between playing hard to get and his desperation to see the the vixen Odette).

"And yet at this point a slight irritation or physical discomfort - by inciting him to consider the present moment as an exceptional moment, outside the rules, one in which even common wisdom would agree that he could accept the appeasement afforded by a pleasure and allow his will, until it might be useful to resume the effort, to rest - would suspend the action of the latter, which would cease to exert its compression; or, less than that, the memory of something he had forgotten to ask Odette, whether she had decided which colour she wanted to have her carriage repainted, or, with regard to a certain investment, whether it was ordinary or preferred shares that she wanted to buy (it was all very well to show her that he could live without seeing her, but if, after that, the painting had to be done all over again or the shares paid no dividends, a lot of good it would have done him), and like a stretched rubber band that is let go or the air in a pneumatic machine that is opened, the idea of seeing her again would spring back from the far distance where it had been kept into the field of the present as an immediate possibility" (p 309, Penguin edition translated by Lydia Davis).

Friday, March 11, 2011

wiki who?

For a long time Wikipedia has been treated by academics with some scorn, lecturers crossing out students' Wikipedia references in essays with enthusiastic relish. It seems as if it is becoming increasingly difficult however for even these tireless teachers to deny the ubiquitous nature of Wikipedia in our lives. Nonetheless, academics, scientists and other 'experts' still contribute very little to this project ... and Wikimedia wants to find out why, in this anonymous survey (with more background here).

In my field, Science and Technology Studies, there has been much dismantling of the boundaries of expertise, and questioning of the kinds of categories that Wikimedia is using to distinguish between contributors. Even so, their survey raises the interesting subject of who contributes to Wikipedia, from where, why, and so forth. This is a topic which the
Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam is studying with vigor (for example see this project about Wikipedia as a place of controversy), and the topic of an upcoming paper I am looking forward to by René König at the Participatory Knowledge Production 2.0 workshop at Maastricht University.

So I wonder, who contributes to the Wikipedia entry about Pneumatic Tube systems? What are their motivations, their connections, their interests? What sources are they drawing from? Why are some images included and not others? Why is the popular culture section much longer than the historical section? Have you contributed to this page? If so why, and if not, why not?

Stereoscopic image by Prof.Dr. Nemo Klein.Gelegenheitsbenutzer at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

pneumatic tube classic of the week 4

Pneumatic tube classic and love letter classic from the romantic adventures of Antoine Doinel ... (see my previous post about the pneumatic tube scene).

Image of Baisers Volés from LYW's Flikr photostream.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

the tubes of tomorrow: the future marches on!

How do we imagine and talk about the future? This question and others are raised in a great book I am reading at the moment called Contested Futures, an edited collection of essays about technoscience.

One essay, by Dutch researcher Harro van Lente, examines the different kinds of language involved in voicing the technological future. He writes that often historical instances are used to formulate technical progress as one piece of ongoing evolution, that is inevitable, and must not be stopped.

This essay is very relevant to the work I am doing on genetic research which steams ahead at a remarkable, seemingly unstoppable pace. But I am also interested in how pneumatic tubes are used as a linguistic device to represent the future of technological progress.

This wonderful prune commercial filled with pneumatic-people tubes, wrinke technicians and rockets seems to be a great example of van Lente's argument, that images of history are pulled together to create a narrative of technological achievement.

Thanks to James Veitch @seamusamadan for his link to this video on twitter.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

pneumatic tube classic of the week 3

I have written about the speakwrites, orifices and mouthpieces of Orwell's pneumatic tube system before. There are many great book covers of this 'classic' - here is a simple penguin edition: