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.

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