Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

at the touch of a pneumatic button

Past futurists have often imagined pneumatic tubes as features of their technological horizon. The Smithsonian Magazine recently published a Boston Globe article, written by Thomas Anderson on December 24, 1900 that imagined what Boston would look like in the year 2000.

Of course there were pneumatic tubes, but these would be no simple letter carrying networks. Pneumatics would have the multi-functionality needed to ease many tasks of daily living:
"The pneumatic tube service, by the way, will have reached its perfection long before the first half of the new century has flown. It will have become a most important factor in the domestic life of the people which also will have undergone great changes. Through such tubes a householder will undoubtedly receive his letters, his readymade lunches, his laundry, his morning and evening paper, and even the things he may require from the department store, which will furnish at the touch of a button any essential solid or liquid that can be named. By means of his electro-pneumatic switchboard, with which all well regulated houses will be equipped, he may sit in his comfortable arm chair and
enjoy either the minister’s sermon or the latest opera in the new Symphony hall
of the vintage of 1960".

The postal system itself, was to be rather more complex than the turn of the century systems transporting letters between postboxes and postoffices:
"The system of pneumatic transmission of mail already introduced is undoubtedly
to have an extensive development, and I have little doubt that the time will
come when mail will be sent from the central or branch post office through such
tubes directly to the house or office of the citizen who cares to pay for the
cost of such service... I do not anticipate that the cheapening and extension of
the telegraph or telephone service is going to adversely affect the number of
letters written and mailed in the future. On the contrary, the cheapening and
improvement of the postal service may operate as a factor against the growth of
the other service"

Sadly it seems that the telephone service did much to "adversely affect" letter writing, at least in its material form. The internet affects not only how we communicate with each other, but also the way we read newspapers, do our shopping and all manner of other tasks, that in Thomas Anderson's eyes would, in our retro future, be easily undertaken at the touch of a pneumatic tube button.
Image from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Monday, October 3, 2011

as thuds and thwacks become mere whispers: more sounds of pneumatic technology

Pneumatic tube systems make wonderful sounds: whooshes, rumbles and clattering tumbles. James Drake describes some of the sounds of this "wheezing, gurgling metal" in his piece about the Prague postal system for BusinessWeek:
Back in the dispatch room, meantime, a blinking red light indicates another incoming missive. As the canister approaches, there's a faint bumblebee drone, then a louder, higher-pitched buzz, then a satisfying thwack as the package drops into its padded receptacle. From the bowels of the earth below comes a drawn-out gurgle, not unlike the flushing of a distant toilet.
It seems however that pneumatic systems can be a little too noisy. Ever since the 1980s, engineers have tried to find ways to stop containers arriving in pathology labs with a thud, by controlling airflow, and slowing down containers for a soft landing at its destination.

More recently, the SwissLog's Whisper Receiving System reportedly "responds to market demands by significantly reducing the noise that occurs when a pneumatic tube carrier arrives at a PTS station". Their re-engineered product includes an energy absorbing landing ramp and cushion, allowing it to be installed in "noise sensitive" areas of hospitals.

As I wrote in an earlier post, pneumatic tube systems are considered by some as contributing to the noise pollution in hospitals. The whispering canister technology certainly ties into the increasing focus of hospital architecture on therapeutic environments which promote healing through quietness, pleasant colours on the walls and green spaces.

The messiness of hospital practice however can't always be reduced to a whisper. One wonders whether we really need to do away with the thuds and thwacks of pneumatic tubes or whether these noises might in fact serve a function?