Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

danish tubes in the postal museum

On a recent visit to Copenhagen, my husband and I visited the wonderful Post and Tele Museum where we not only learnt how to fold a letter and wax seal it but also found a working pneumatic tube display! Here are some photos:

Photos my own.

Friday, November 16, 2012

treasure in a tube

I have spent some time researching pneumatic tubes now, and they always seem to be found in American and European places. But a recent ABC podcast from Canberra, has revealed where these tubes are hidden in Australia too.  In the walls and ceilings of Old Parliament!

Michael Evans, the manager of visitor experience at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House, spoke to Louise Maher on the radio recently, to talk about this treasure in the museum.

He describes how there were several sets of tubes, one to the Postoffice and another 3km line to the government printers for sending out the Hansards.

For those curious to see the tubes at the museum, you can see them in the downstairs gallery, at the old post office and in the Attendant's Booth in the House of Representative's Chamber. Not all the tubes are there, but there are "some ends of it you can see" (see photo). Michael exclaims, that it is "really an untapped project to go and map what is there and what isn't there".

There is one section that still works but is not in action at the moment in order to preserve the technology - however Michael says that they want to get this working so that their visitors can see and hear the tubes (the thunk!).

Listen to the Treasure Trove podcast here.

And read the museum blogpost on Lamsons here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

science fictions

Rosalind Williams, author of the wonderful Notes on the Underground, is a keynote at a graduate conference at Rutgers University, Friday, March 1st 2013, titled "Science Fiction & Fictions of Science".

See the website for more information.

Friday, November 2, 2012

you can't fax a blood sample

Save space, save money, save time, and what's more, better patient care ... A new development at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre ticks off all of the reasons to install pneumatic tubes between their network of hospitals, and extend upon the existing lines. Pneumatic tubes are described this time, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as an "age-old technology that has disappeared from much of the business world", but one needed in hospitals because "you can't fax a blood sample". These Swisslog tubes extend far - almost two city blocks. The journalist describes the 3D plans for the installation as like a page from a Dr. Seuss book, interviewing a number of developers, including representatives at Swisslog and Pevco about the tubes. One states "as hospitals expand, they're rarely one building anymore", the new hospital one that requires a centralised lab connected easily to the different buildings. Space is about patient care, and the more you can hide away the better - pneumatic tubes are perfect for this, their metal pipes invisible to most who visit a hospital. It is not so invisible to many hospital designers and engineers however, who are designing the tubes in more and more hospitals, nor to the many lab staff whose positions now become redundant as the tubes do their work.

Image: Pneumatic tubes in a parking garage from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

lost letter experiments

It seems that the lost letter has not lost its place in the world of research. Recently, anthropologists from UCL published an article in PlosOne where they used the lost letter technique to measure altruism. 300 hand addressed, stamped letters were dropped on London pavements, on rain-free days (hmm, not often then!). Their results showed that the wealthier the neighbourhood the more likely the letter would be returned. This is a finding which does of course have the potential to lead to negative stereotypes about kindness towards strangers, but can also be argued to point to some of the complex circumstances shaping everyday life in these neighbourhoods.

What does posting a lost letter show? The lost letter technique was first used in the 1960s by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram (of six-degrees-of-separation fame), as a perfect way to examine altruistic behaviour. His initial experiments involved leaving letters addressed to  favourable organisations and stigmatised organisations, finding that the former received more returned letters. The UCL experimenters were more controlled in the handwritten address, with the same gender neutral name on every letter, but it is interesting that the method itself is still used in research, despite the decline in posting letters.

Image from Diesel Punks.

Monday, October 15, 2012

the small world of pneumatics

As weird geographical chance would have it, I just happened to be two offices down from Christine, whose family owns a pneumatic tube system company in Germany.

The company is called HÖRTIG rohrpost, and is based in Bayreuth. They have been installing pneumatic tubes since the 1960s, into a variety of places such as hospitals, supermarkets, pharmacies and cinemas. Each system is tailor-made for its location, using innovative technologies. One of their latest developments is the CargoPlus model which has a diameter of 500mm and can take material up to 50kg. The company are also taking part in a project regarding the underground movement of cargo, while also expanding their horizons to China and other Asian countries.

The company showcases their work at various trade fairs, which Christine told me she remembered attending when she was younger, where they have elaborate displays, with tubing hanging from scaffolding. I hope to speak with other members of this family-run business in the future, find out more about how their systems are being tailored for hospitals and other buildings, in Europe and in Asia, and maybe even attend a trade fair to see this stall and learn more about this fascinating industry.

Images of a hospital system and tube with an X-Ray from the company website.

Friday, September 28, 2012

cfp edited book on steampunk

Brian Croxall and Rachel Bowser are seeking abstracts for inclusion in a proposal for an edited volume on steampunk. From their advertisement:

The anthology will present a varied look at steampunk culture and criticism, presenting a comprehensive look at the genre’s impact and development in the fields of art and material cultural. Accordingly, we seek proposals that explore any of a range of iterations of the genre. These may include, for example, analysis of:

                • Steampunk fiction
                • Steampunk film
                • Steampunk visual art
                • Steampunk fashion
                • Steampunk performance
                • Steampunk fan culture
                • Steampunk in relationship to preceding science fiction and -punk genres
                • Steampunk and feminism
                • Steampunk and postcolonial paradigms
                • Steampunk and Victorian studies
                • Steampunk and technology studies

We hope to present this collection as of interest to both steampunk enthusiasts and non-specialists in the genre, as well as both academic and generalist readers. With this in mind, please submit proposals that are steeped in steampunk culture and criticism, that could be of interest to a generalist audience and that have a strong sense of the stakes of steampunk analysis for broader cultural studies.
Submit 500 word proposals to Brian Croxall (b [dot] croxall [at] gmail [dot] com) and Rachel Bowser (rachel [dot] bowser [at] gmail [dot] com) by 1 October 2012.

Image from the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, UK, from FlikrDelusion's photostream.

Friday, September 21, 2012

meet me in the st louis postal system

There is another nice essay about pneumatic tubes online, this time about the St Louis postal system, which you can find at the RiverFront Times blog.

Those interested in technological assessment may be interested the quoted list of advantages and disadvantages of running the system:
1. High rate of speed between stations for limited quantities of mail. 2. Freedom from surface congestion. 
Limitation and disadvantages: 
1. Only five pounds of mail could by carried in each container; and all classes of mail could not be carried. 2. The minimum time between dispatches is 15 seconds allowing only 20 pounds of letter mail each minute. Therefore, vehicle service would be required to carry mail during heavy volume times. 3. The inability to carry special delivery parcels due to the size of the carriers. 4. The relays at station are built in delays but they are unavoidable requiring all stations to be manned and open during operation. 5. The inability to dispatch between intermediate stations during continuous transmission between any two points.6. Inability to dispatch to railroad companies without additional handling. 7. Complaints resulting from careless locking and accidental opening of container in transit causing damaged mail. 8. Dampness and oil damage to mail. 9. Service interruptions block an entire line. 10. Congestion from heavy mail volumes. 11. Equipment takes up rented building space. 12. Excessive costs.
Image from Popular Mechanics, 10 Geeky Ways to Deliver Mail.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

dad's postboxes

Some guest photos of European postboxes from my father ...

Images from: Prague (Czech Republic), Dresden (Germany) and Portloe (UK).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

medicine and literature

A new issue of Granta is out which may interest some readers of this blog. It not only has a beautiful cover - evoking, amongst many things, Carl Zimmer's science ink - but also a wonderful range of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and photoessays.

Depending on where you live, there are a festival of events to coincide with the issue, such as "A Spoonful of Fiction" at The Last Tuesday Society (admission price includes the Granta issue and a Hendrick's gin and tonic - see also other lectures in this series, including Sam Alberti's upcoming history of medical museum and the field trip to St Bart's pathology museum) and other events in London at the Wellcome Library, The Freud Museum, The Horse Hospital and the Hospital Club.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

opening the tubes up to tourists

Pneumatic tube aficionados visiting Prague in the near future should be interested to know that the pneumatic post system there has recently been purchased by Zdenek Drazil from Windcom, who plans, according to the Prague Daily Monitor, to "revitalise it and use it in education as well as a tourist attraction at Prague Castle".

And it seems that those longing to send their mail by pneumatic post may have a chance to relive this experience if the venture goes ahead. Drazil says, "I would like the principles (of the pneumatic post) to be used in teaching the physical principles to students. I am also sure that the terminal at Prague Castle in the spaces of Ceska posta could be successful. Tourists could inspect it and send a postcard or a letter through it". Reason enough indeed for a visit!

Image of Prague tube station from m4r00n3d's photostream

Sunday, August 19, 2012

golden postboxes

Just like the golden chocolate wrappers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Royal Mail (and a few interlopers) have sprinkled gold dust on several postboxes around England, to celebrate their medals in the Olympics.

What a golden time to send a letter!

Image from eltpic's Flikr photostream.

Monday, August 13, 2012

objects, things and stuff

A conference for the lovers of material culture, or in other words, things and stuff.

The Lives of Objects
September 2013
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW)
Wolfson College, Oxford

"Everything from scientific instruments, technological artefacts, mementos, mundane and domestic items, and aesthetic creations such as sculpture and portraiture can provide clues to lives lived, and this conference will go beyond biography to investigate the lives of objects and the relation of those objects to human lives".

See the webpage for more details - - and for a wonderful English ethnography of material culture/stuff and what this tells us about people, see Daniel Miller's The Comfort of Things.

Image from conference website.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

winding dizzying putkiposti

I have just finished yet another great Norwegian novel, and one more awaits, freshly picked up from the library. At night I am watching The Bridge, halfway between Sweden and Denmark. Soon I will be in Copenhagen. What can I find out about Scandinavian pneumatic tubes in the meantime?

While pneumatic tube systems do not seem to be as resplendent in Scandinavian cities as they are in other European places, there are still a number of companies situated in this part of the world, such as the Finnish PutkiPosti company Teho Tecknikka, and others in Sweden. At the Kommunikationens Hus, the Post and Tele Museum in Denmark, they had a popular exhibition on pneumatic tubes, where they described them as something between a vacuum cleaner and a postbox. The exhibition summary says that there were no extensive pneumatic networks in Copenhagen, although some buildings did have their own systems, such as Riget Hospital and the Odense University Hospital. Whether these still exist I am not sure. Finally, there is a lovely poetic post (so I gather from Google Translate) by Johanna Eriksson on the Swedish blog [squinch][researching] about pneumatics: "Criss Cross and Around ... A single long water slide ...Where? Already gone. There it was again!".

Image from Teho Tecknikka.
Thanks to for the pneumatic post translations.

Monday, July 30, 2012

sensory research

Often my posts on this blog refer to the sensory aspects of pneumatic tubes. My PhD research paid attention to the sensory nature of doctors' adjustments in new hospitals, and my future research concerns the sensory practices of doctors-in-training. While I have, and will be, deliberately paying attention to the sensory dimensions of experience in hospital settings, often this can be overlooked in health care research. My PhD supervisor and I wrote an article that was published recently in Qualitative Health Research which attempts to heighten awareness of the sensory in qualitative health research, particularly in interviews, and I share it here in case some of you are interested.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

tube post

A marvellous postcard from Amsterdam arrived in the letterbox the other day - Thanks Andy!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

conference in a box

Knowledge in a Box - How Mundane Things Shape Knowledge Production

Venue; Kavala, Greece
Municipal Tobacco Warehouse-Tobacco Worker Square (Dimotiki Kapnapothiki-Plateia Kapnergati)
Some highlights from a conference for lovers of boxes, tubes, packages and other everyday objects ....

Thursday 26 July 2012 
9:30-10:00 Cheng, Yi-Ping. Lancaster University 
The Flow and Storage of Things in Taiwanese’s Households: Things and Their Containers 

12:30-13:00 Goff, Alice. University of California, Berkeley 
Containing the Trees: The Schildbach Wood Library and the Eighteenth Century Box 

Friday, 27 July 2012 

13:00-13:30 Hammel, Tanja. University of Basel 
Botanical Knowledge in a Parcel 

13:30-14:00 Pettersson, Ylwa and Kandastar, Razia Asad. Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala 
The Travels of Folke Linder: As Traced by his Microscope Box 

Saturday, 28 July 2012 

11:00-11:30 Mechler, Ulrich. Medizin und Pharmaziehistorische Sammlung Uni Kiel 
Lymph Nodes in Folders – an Experimental System in Pathological Borderlands 

12:30-13:00 Rentetzi, Maria. National Technical University of Athens 
Calibrating Radiotherapy Equipment: Sending TLD’s in Postal Boxes 
Sunday, 29 July 2012 

11:30-12:00 Ma, Li. Nesna University College, Norway 
From Tokens in Envelopes to Clay Tablets: On The Early development of Writing, Counting and Mathematics 
For more information see:
Local contact: Maria Rentetzi,

Image from askpang's Flikr page.

Monday, July 16, 2012

irish pneumatics

I attended a medical sociology conference in Belfast recently, at the beautiful Queen's University. I wasn't expecting to talk about pneumatic tubes here (although Belfast is famous for a pneumatic invention of another kind), but rather about the healthcare professions.

One morning as I was preparing for the conference, I was listening to the BBC news and pneumatic tubes appeared on the hotel TV screen. A new hospital was opening its doors in Wolf Lough, near Enniskillen. The first new hospital to be built in Northern Ireland in over a decade, a sign of further rejuvenation of this previously troubled area.

Amongst the other "state to the art technology" being showcased was a "vacuum transfer system" to "allow for drugs, products and lab reports to be transferred around the hospital without being totally reliant on porters. It will also help speed up the discharge of patients who are often delayed awaiting prescriptions".

The hospital is said to epitomise "everything that is modern in a 21st century health service". There are no wards, just single rooms, each complete with flatscreen TVs and floor to ceiling windows said to promote therapeutic healing. The Royal College of Nursing is worried that there aren't enough nurses for this new layout.

Not enough nurses, too many porters. Although more nurses and porters are being hired for the hospital, these new hospital designs are shifting divisions of labour on the wards. What does it mean that the vacuum transfer system will make the hospital less reliant on porters? How will the work load of nurses change with these single bed rooms? Are architects now becoming a new healing profession, with their therapeutic window designs?

Pneumatic tube technologies and other aspects of contemporary hospital design raise these kinds of questions about how healthcare professions are continually evolving, and I had plenty to think about while joining the discussions at Queen's.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

going underground

Travel underground to a conference that examines the subterranean nervous system of London: the tube.
Deadline in two days! 13th July 2012. See CfP below: 

Going Underground: Travel Beneath the Metropolis 1863-2013
A Conference to Mark the 150th Anniversary of the London Underground

10 January 2013 will mark the 150th Anniversary of the public opening of the Metropolitan Railway in London. It was the world’s first urban rapid transport system to run partly in subterranean sections. As the precursor of today’s London Underground, it was not only a pioneer of technological and engineering advances, but also instigated new spatial, political, cultural and social realms that are now considered to be synonymous with London and modern urban experiences across the globe.

The Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, is marking the anniversary by organising a two-day conference dedicated to the history and use of the London Underground.

Taking the construction and opening of the Metropolitan Railway as a departure point, this conference seeks to explore the past, present and future of the London Underground from a variety of perspectives that investigate its histories, geographies, cultures, politics and social characteristics.  

The conference organisers invite proposals for papers of 15-20 minutes in length. Please visit the conference website for further details:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

tubes: behind the scenes

Referencing the infamous Ted Stevens comment about the internet, Andrew Blum has written a book simply titled Tubes. 

The book may be of interest to some readers of this blog, not only for the title, but also because, according to the New York Times book review, it examines the materiality of technology. Here is a section from the book:
I have confirmed with my own eyes that the Internet is many things, in many places. But one thing it most certainly is, nearly everywhere, is, in fact, a series of tubes. There are tubes beneath the ocean that connect London and New York. Tubes that connect Google and Facebook. There are buildings filled with tubes, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes. Everything you do online travels through a tube.

I haven't read the book but am intrigued, not only by Blum's pursuit of fibre cables, but also by another section of the book quoted in the book review, where Blum learns that the Internet in has a smell, "one he describes as 'an odd but distinctive mix of industrial strength air-conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors'". This reminds me of the smell of engine rooms I have visited to see the hub of pneumatic tube activity. So often the sensory dimensions of the internet are forgotten in the focus on the ephemeral and virtual, but this technology too, so this book promises to tell us, also has multisensory, material dimensions.

Thanks Andy for the link.

Monday, June 4, 2012

ghastly remnants of a dead medium?

Are pneumatic tubes dead? Or to use a Princess Bride phrase, "mostly dead"?

It seems so, according to the entry on pneumatic tubes in the wiki Dead Media Archive, although the wiki contributors acknowledge that there are "ghastly remnants" of the dead medium, including a limited rebirth in a hospital (sounds like something from Riget).

The Dead Media Archive is described as concerning "historical research into forgotten, obsolete, neglected or otherwise dead media technologies", qualities which do not seem to describe the pneumatic tube systems currently alive and well in institutions (and some homes!) all around the world.

Despite its eulogy style rendering of pneumatic tube systems, the dossier is very good, covering the origins of pneumatics in Ancient Greece, through to the hundreds of patents submitted for tube technology in the late 19th Century. Authors/editors ponder the difference between the telegraph and pneumatics, writing that "unlike the telegraph, which digitizes messages, the pneumatic letter retains analog meaning, which could range from your handwriting to the type of stationary you use".

For those interested, there is a fabulous list of resources at the end of the article too, with some important Scientific American papers, including one from 1873 entitled “Novel Mode of Locating Obstructions in Pneumatic Tubes”, which describes a method of isolating pneumatic tube obstructions utilising sound waves. 

There are also great dossiers on other dead media, including those which I remember from childhood (paperdolls, mixed tapes and walkmans), from my university days (microfilm and credit card imprinters), to those which still seem to be hiding in my parents' cupboards (phonebooks). And there is one article about a dead media which I wish wasn't so dead - shorthand - which I think would be wonderful to know as an ethnographer!

See the full list of Dead Media Archive dossiers here.

Image from Dead Media Archive of Albert Brisbane's pneumatic tube patent. Brisbane is often credited for 'inventing' the pneumatic tube, although its origins are reported in the dossier as a "hodge-podge" of previous patents and improvements.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

le bruit de choc

Paris in the 1890s, and a tubiste working in the Poste Pneumatique pulls a lever, cranks a steel door, exchanges cylinders and closes the door again. Sweat forms on his brow as he turns the wheel to create a vacuum and apply compressed air. He pauses to ring the bell so the next station knows of the coming delivery. A tubiste down the line rings his bell when he hears le bruit de choc as the tube arrives at his station.
This section of text, adapted from Molly Wright Steenson's Cabinet article, is filled with sound. The soundscapes of these brass-age pneumatic systems evoke the work involved in sending pneumatic missives underneath the city. These historic sonic delights are however considered pollution in many modern day hospitals, with an increasing call to 'turn the sound down' in clinical work spaces.
Swisslog have responded to this drive with their patent-pending Whisper Receiving System, which minimises noise associated with pneumatic transportation. Recently installed in the positively named Le Bonheur Hospital in America, the system is said to enable employees to concentrate better on the patient care requirements of the hospital. I wonder how the tubistes were ever able to get their work done with all of that cranking, clanging and bell ringing!

Image from Scott Kostolni's Flikrstream.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

winding sentences, text and tubes

Of a time when sentences where long, space mattered in newspapers, and pneumatic tubes ran under the city streets ...

From The New York Times, September 30, 1892.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

DIY pneumatic tube system

Last year I reported on some evidence of vacuumpunk, as video bloggers document their DIY pneumatic tube systems. Looks like its a movement!

This and other videos can be found here, on the Hallo Spencer Fanblog.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

embroidering anthropology

What is not to love about the gorgeous embroidered typography of this month's edition of the new online anthropology journal, Anthropology of This Century:

It is so nice when academia pays some attention to aesthetics.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

pneumatic tubes in literature 4

Two fantastic paragraphs from Slaughterhouse Five (p7) about the connections made between institutions, by the brass and velvet pneumatic tubes, sent to me by my brother-in-law Andy:
While I was studying to be an anthropologist, I was also working as a police reporter for the famous Chicago City News Bureau for twenty-eight dollars a well. One time they switched me from the night shift to the day shift, so I worked sixteen hours straight. We were supported by all the newspapers in town, and the AP and the UP and all that. And we would cover the courts and the police stations and the Fire Department and the Coast Guard out on Lake Michigan and all that. We were connected to the institutions that supported us by means of pneumatic tubes which ran under the streets of Chicago. 
Reporters would telephone in stories to writers wearing headphones, and the writers would stencil the stories on mimeograph sheets. The stories were mimeographed and stuffed into the brass and velvet cartridges which the pneumatic tubes ate. The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who had gone to war. 
For those interested in learning more about the Chicago Postal Pneumatic Tube Company, you may enjoy this thread on the Forgotten Chicago Forum, about the mysterious manhole covers in the city. 

Image of the Chicago Postal Pneumatic Tube Company from the University of Illinois Library.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

poetic medic stamps

The H-Net listserv recently posted the news of a William Carlos Williams commemorative stamp, and as both an important poet and doctor, I thought this deserved a mention here too. William Carlos Williams has been described by some anthropologists as a true ethnographer, in the way he observed about, reflected upon and wrote about his patients.

This commemorative stamp coincides with another stamp release in Australia, of well-known Australian doctors, sent to me by my mother.  

For those interested in medical philately, there is a specialist in the area called Fred Skvara, who writes articles in the newsletters of the Medical History Society of New Jersey, available online at Fred's next talk on medical philately will be at the Medical History Society of New Jersey's Spring Meeting, Wed. May 16, Nassau Club, Princeton NJ. For the full program,

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

pencils and post

In her essay, My Life in Pencils, Mary Norris describes her now obsolete job at The New Yorker, called collating, where she had to copy legibly all changes on a piece of writing (from editor, author, fact checker and proof reader) onto a clean proof page, which was then put into a cannister and sent, via pneumatic tube, to a higher floor where the changes were transmitted, by fax, to a printer in Chicago.

This leads her to ponder the pencil. It is a lovely little essay, in which the writer describes moving from a soft No. 1 pencil to a harder No. 2 pencil as feeling like she had a hangover. A party she attends is hosted by a sixth-generation pencil-maker, dressed "in shades of pencil lead". Not only does this piece refer to yet another use of the wonderful pneumatic tube, but it also lovingly celebrates another technology which is largely taken for granted.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

crash course in pneumatic tubes

In New Dehli or Ottawa, or at least nearby?

Here are a couple of courses which might take your fancy:

The International Institute of Healthcare and Medical Technologies is offering a three day crash course in August about pneumatic tubes.

Who should attend? Hospital administrators, hospital engineers, biomedical students, hospital consultants, hospital architects, and pneumatic tube ethnographers perhaps? Visit for more details or email

The Canada Science and Technology Museum is offering a five day course on reading aftifacts also in August, where participants get to explore using artifacts as resources for research and teaching, explore material culture methodologies and learn conservation, cataloguing and collection techniques.

Who should attend? Graduate students, post-docs, faculty interested in teaching history through artifacts and scholars seeking to expand their research methods. Registration closes June 15th. For further information contact

Image my own, from the Post Museum in Paris.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

an extinct tube station called post office

For some years now, every time I have asked for stamps for my post, I have been given a print-out label. I know this is easy and efficient and that the postmistresses and masters have long lunchtime queues and other important requests like phone bill payments to deal with, but really, has the perforated, lick-able and often (although less and less these days) beautiful stamp really disappeared so much from our consciousness that even those who work in postoffices can't recognise what it is?

In my local 'postoffice' in Exeter - a completely unromantic place in a characterless mall, akin to the shopping complex-style cinemas we are now forced to put up with - there is one window where you can buy 'interesting stamps';that is stamps which are not just multicoloured variations of Elizabeth's profile (as iconic as that is!). This is of course one step up from the Netherlands, where the only option is standard issue local and international stamps sold in newsagents, but still, the stamp buying experience is somewhat diminished when you have to wait for the right window to call your number. I know that there are other stamp lovers in Exeter though, as the post office's fantastically foxy Roald Dahl stamp stash is now depleted, with only the dreary prospect of Olympic stamps ahead.

The relegation of interesting stamps to the corners of postoffices and their disappearance from our mail is part and parcel of a larger decline in postal practices. The Guardian ran a story last week farewelling the great age of the post office, a great age that had already started to disappear early last century when post offices were demolished in London and tube station names changed from Post Office to St Paul's. More recently postal services the world over are losing money, lots of money. "Weightless electronic words" (Meek 2011) have proved too powerful a competitor to the written word. In 2005 the letter market went into absolute decline, falling ever since and by 2015 it is predicted that letter volumes will decline by another 25 - 40 percent.

A rather grim picture of Dutch and English postal networks is painted in an excellent essay by James Meek in the London Review of Books last year. Meek follows letters ethnographically, meeting the Dutch postal workers who sort out crates of mail (catalogues and magazines) in their flats and the bureaucrats reorganising Royal Mail services. Before Meek started the essay he had planned to set up the interviews by post, but he didn't think about it very long. Instead he phoned, emailed, texted, skyped, chattered and googled.

So here is yet another rant to add to the many moans about the loss of postal magic from our lives. This is more than nostalgia for the past, but rather sadness that slow, time-consuming, thoughtful practices such as correspondence by post are disappearing in contemporary society, as are the infrastructures which support them. So I am going to sign off now, go and make myself a cup of tea, and write a letter.

For other blogs celebrating post see for example: letters of note (thanks Joeri) letterheady and everyday should be a red letter day.

Photo my own, taken during conference trip in Oxford, 2011.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

hospitals of music and flowers

A beautiful series of photos in Colossal has been making the blog rounds recently, of Anna Schuleit's installation Bloom. This moving work involved the careful placement of twenty-eight thousand pots of flowers in various wards of a closed mental health hospital in New England, USA.

Usually photos of closed hospitals highlight decay, disuse and disrepair. Schuleit's installation on the other hand tells a somewhat more poignant story. Asked to create a sit-specific work for the closed hospital, which would be open to the public for four days, she chose to inundate the space with flowers, to reflect on the sad absence of flowers in psychiatric settings. After the exhibition closed, the flowers were then delivered to nearby shelters, half-way houses and psychiatric hospitals. This is not the first time that the artist has produced a site-specific work in a hospital. In 2000 she created a sound installation in another disused New England hospital called Habeas Corpus, where visitors listened to a recording of Bach's Magnificat pouring out of the shattered window panes.

Image from trendhunter and thanks to Daniele for sending me this link.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

freight tubes of the future

Thanks to Andy for sending me this picture from Retronaut, of the 1920s city of the future, complete with freight tubes:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

as winter slides into spring

It seems only fitting to mark the changes of the seasons with some beautiful microscopic slides. Two years ago I was fascinated by the nonist's exquisite microscopic specimens. Now I have discovered Wilson Bentley's 1880s microscope-photographs of the ephemeral, melting, delicate snowflake:

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

london tubes

I am going to London in April. After four months now of living in England I am itching to visit the nation's capital, my mouth watering already for London restaurant meals and the coffee I hear some Melbourne baristas are brewing in Antipodean cafes, as well as the galleries, the museums etc etc. Oh yes, and the excellent conference I am attending on genetics!

Think London and you think underground. Or 'the tube'. The iconically represented networked system of transportation is now synonymous with the city. In Flesh and Stone, Richard Sennett describes the London Underground as both an artery and a vein, transforming the social condition of Londoners by allowing them to live further outside the city centre, facilitating mass consumption, and supposedly creating a more "mixed" city.

It is because of the human blood like flows of people however that Sennett proposes that the city was not mixed but rather that human contact between the classes was limited. During the day, the arteries took people below ground into the heart of the city, creating density by daylight, while at night the subterranean channels emptied the masses from the centre, leaving a sparsely populated city.

Tubes and vessels, pipes and lungs: the circulatory system and respiratory system are often used to describe urban flows of transportation, communication and other forms of movement. What does it mean to use these medical metaphors? Particularly in contexts such as hospitals, if we want to describe pneumatic tube systems in this way, where vessles, arterioles, air sacs and tracheas take on a particular clinical relevance? The metaphors we use tell us something about norms, attitudes, values and so forth, and this is something I have previously explored, and will continue to explore, when thinking about pneumatic tubes.

Image from Roger Wollstadt's Flikr photostream.