Friday, April 22, 2011

coffee and chocolate

Coffee and chocolate go so well together that I thought this fantastic pneumatic tube system rigged up at The Roasting Plant in New York City would be the perfect image for Easter.

According to a New York Magazine article on the store, the tubes, where "beans dance overheard" are meant to "minimize the time and distance between roasting, grinding, brewing, and drinking". When it comes to coffee, time certainly matters! This is the kind of technology which I can see would also find a perfect place in my old hometown Melbourne, where everything to do wtih coffee is now well and truly science.

Happy Easter!

Pneumatic tubes bring just roasted coffee beans into their respective tubes., originally uploaded by Curious Expeditions. See here for more pictures of The Roasting Plant:

Monday, April 18, 2011

breathing new life into history

I received this announcement in my inbox over the weekend, which is seems to be some kind of good news following the the bad news for medical historians last year:
"Dear MEDMED-L Colleagues,

Many of you may have heard last year that the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine in London—which was tied to University College, London—was shutting its doors. I've now learned that the Centre has been given a new lease on life, but with a much more circumscribed mandate. It will be tied not to the History faculty at UCL but to the the Biological Sciences Division of the Faculty of Life Sciences. Its focus will be solely on the history of the neurosciences "and related fields."

You can find the new director's announcement at this link:"
On another historical 'note' I have added a new book to my reading list after learning that Rosalind Williams will be receiving an honorary doctorate in the Netherlands soon:

I have never read any of Rosalind Williams' work but am looking forward to a book about "real and imaginary undergrounds" from a historian "who uses imaginative literature as a source of evidence and insight into the history of technology". I already like the choice of image on the front cover of her book - one of my favourite Andreas Gursky photographs.

Image from Rosalind Williams' website.

Friday, April 15, 2011

obscura tours 2011

Last week was the annual Obscura Day event. This is a chance to visit hidden and intriguing places, including, for the second year, a tour of Stanford Hospital's pneumatic tube system. Check out Piemouth's photos of the tour here. She writes:

"It was great! We got to see the control room where the engineers can monitor and track every capsule, and the machine rooms where the blowers that power the system are housed. Leander explained how the system works - and how it doesn't work when people do things like send a bundle of socks through the system"
Unfortunately Piemouth's images are copyright protected and I couldn't post them here, but have found this great (tangentially related) photo taken during an Obscura Day 2011 tour by Shawn Clover which puts a bit of steam into this post.

Steam Throttle, originally uploaded by Shawn Clover.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

of mauve ribbons, white wax and petit bleus

In a retelling of his romantic childhood fascination with Gilberte (daughter of the previously mentioned Monsieur Swann) Marcel Proust very beautifully unveils the hidden markings, the social relations, the meanings and the hope bound up in pneumatic correspondence:

"Another time, still preoccupied by the desire to hear La Berma in a classical play, I had asked her [Gilberte] if she happened to own a little book in which Bergotte talked about Racine, and which one could no longer find. She had asked me to remind her of its exact title and that evening I had addressed an express letter to her, writing on the envelope that name, Gilberte Swann, which I had so often copied out in my notebooks. The next day she brought me a packet tied up in mauve ribbons and sealed with white wax, containing the little book, a copy of which she had asked for someone to locate for her. 'You see? It really is the one you asked for,' she said, taking from her muff the letter I had sent her. But on the address of this pneumatique1 - which, only yesterday, was nothing, was merely a petit bleu which I had written, and which, now that a telegraph boy had delivered it to Gilberte's concierge and a servant had carried it to her room, had become this priceless thing, one of the petits bleus she had received that day - it was hard for me to recognize the insignificant, solitary lines of my handwriting under the printed circles apposed to it by the post office, under the inscriptions added in pencil by one of the telegraph messangers, signs of actual realization, stamps from the outside world, violet bands symbolizing life, which for the first time came to espuse, sustain, uplift, delight my dream" (The Way by Swann's, Penguin edition translated by Lydia Davis, p406).

1. pneumatique: express letter sent by pneumatic tube. This delivery system existed in Paris as late as the 1970s or 1980s; as the telephone system was very slow to develop, casual appointments were made and messages transmitted by pneumatique, also known as a petit bleu, literrally 'little blue'. (The Way by Swann's, Penguin edition translated by Lydia Davis, p446).

Image from active social plastic.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

pneumatic cloc post doc

Does this post-doc interest any pneumatic technology lovers?
"The Geography Department of Royal Holloway University of London, are seeking to appoint a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant to work on an AHRC-funded project, ‘Pumping time: geographies of temporal infrastructure in fin-de-si├Ęcle Paris’. This is a project about the histories, geographies, cultures and politics of pneumatic clocks as urban temporal infrastructure. The post is based at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL). The successful candidate will have experience in archival research, and will be expected to undertake archival work in London and Glasgow libraries. Proficiency in French is also required. The appointment will be for a fixed period of 12 months starting from October 1st 2011. Salary is £32,106 per annum inclusive of London Allowance. Informal inquiries regarding the post can be made to Dr Mustafa Dikec at Further details and an application form are available to download at or by contacting the Recruitment Team by or tel: 01784 414241 Please quote the reference: X0311/6294 Closing date: 12 noon 3rd May 2011 The College is committed to equality and diversity, and encourages applications from all sections of the community."
I have to confess that I had to google the pneumatic clock. I found out from Watchismo Times that the thermo-pneumatic clock works as following:

"At the lower left, shielded by a translucent housing, is a carbon rod resistance that heats the colored alcohol in the glass vessel just above it. This causes some of the alcohol to vaporize, the pressure pushing the liquid up the connecting pipe to the vessel at top right. As the latter gets heavier the wheel bearing the four vessels experiences a torque that rewinds a remontoire spring driving a conventional gear train and escapement. This clock has a pendulum-controlled escapement, but models with balance wheel escapements also existed."

As for the larger clocks in cities, a Nature article from 1880 reported that:
"To distribute the time with accuracy and uniformity in a large city is a problem of great utility and extreme importance. This problem has been all but completely solved by the pneumatic clocks erected since March last in the principal streets of Paris and among a considerable number of subscribers, who, for a halfpenny a day, receive dials with pneumatic receivers established in the public streets and in private buildings."
How curious! I am definitely keen to learn more, and will have to follow the work of this post-doc project closely. Will the wonders of pneumatic technology ever cease to amaze?

Image from Watchismo Times via Boing Boing.