Wednesday, August 21, 2013

new article on newmatics in new scientist

The front cover of the latest New Scientist proclaims the end of infinity, and in smaller font, that "vintage postal pipes make a comeback". Turn to page 36, or sign in online, and you can read Jacob Aron's great feature about pneumatic tube systems.

Fittingly the article begins in a windowless room in a London basement. At first, we are not told where this basement is - it could be anywhere in the city. The tubes are hidden, and that is the point. Later we find out that the basement is in the University College Hospital, and are told that hospitals are the booming market for pneumatic tube systems.

There are some terrific stories in the article, such as the one about the secret pneumatic message system between composer Guiseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito, where notes about the opera they were working on were shuttled under the streets of Milan. Academic Holly Kruse is interviewed about the social impact of the tubes, and I had the opportunity to speak to Jacob Aron too (read some of my comments at the end of the article) and talk about this "antique messaging technology" made new again.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

elon musk's non-pneumatic tube

You've probably heard by now about Elon Musk's 6 billion dollar plan to whizz Americans from one end of the country to another by tube transport (read my previous post about it here). Here is the "napkin sketch" of the system:

And if you have read any of the media coverage, you've probably read something about pneumatic tubes too.

It seems that journalists can't help but compare the Hyperloop to pneumatic tubes, despite the engineering principles being quite different, and Musk's insistence that it works very differently to pneumatic tube systems. The Telegraph describes the Hyperloop as a modern day pneuamatic travel system, while The L.A. Times calls is the "equivalent of a 450-mile pneumatic tube". WIRED write that the engineering is similar to "old-school" pneumatic tube systems, and the Globe and Mail said the Hyperloop system was "not unlike the pneumatic tubes that transport capsules stuffed with paperwork in older buildings. In this case, the cargo would be several people, reclining for the ride".

Why do the comparisons persist? Well besides the obvious tube-like appearance of the transportation system, I think that these comparisons tie into a romantic notion of transporting people around the world like parcels and letters, by pneumatics. As I wrote previously, it is a science-fiction fantasy imagined by many entrepreneurs in the past, so a comparison to pneumatic tubes links Elon Musk to this lineage of great imagination.

His ideas certainly seem to have sparked the imaginations of many tech-bloggers and micro-bloggers who are already lining up for the first $20 ticket. For others though it has led to daydreams of times gone by, such as Paul Whitefield from the LA Times:
"I remember when we had pneumatic tubes here at The Times. We used them to whoosh cylinders full of important documents from the newsroom on the third floor to the composing room on the second floor. Quite often, they got stuck. People got paid to fish the cylinders out. One time, a fellow newsman tried to do the job himself. He got his arm stuck in the tube. So the people who got paid to fish the cylinders out had to fish him out too. It's just one more great thing about journalism that the Internet has killed".
Image from Twitter.

Monday, August 12, 2013

pneumatic tube factory tour part two: the workshop

I arrive at the Hörtig pneumatic tube factory on a hot day in June. The factory is in the outskirts of the German city of Bayreuth, which I reach by meandering past the city's opera houses and gardens. After waiting for several trucks to pass in the factory driveway, laden with tubing, I enter the building. I then meet Martin, the owner of the company, and my warm host for the morning, Karin.

Karin works in quality assurance, a job she tells me about over a hot chocolate, in the staff kitchen and dining area. After I finish my drink, Karin takes me on a tour of the factory. We enter the factory floor first of all. There is a quiet, subdued sense of industrious work in the workshop, with the faint sound of a saw or drill coming from a nearby room. A smell of grease or oil gets stronger as we step further into the workshop.

At one bench, a man sits painting parts of tubing with grey paint, using a small paintbrush. He works by himself, and has about ten parts in front of him. Behind him there is a large wall of little drawers of hardware; screws and other pieces needed to assemble the tubes, all neatly labelled and ordered.

Karin and I head further into the workshop, passing apprentices at various workstations, working with electrical parts, learning their craft. In a glassed-off room a large machine methodically cuts out pieces of grey plastic - perhaps this is the sound I heard earlier. The room is very neat, all the tools arranged carefully.

It is a privilege to be allowed access into the heart of this pneumatic tube factory, to be allowed into the workshop, and see the German craftsmen at work. There is a lot to take in, the sounds, smells and sights of the tubes being built, by machines and by men. There is a craft tradition here I am only vaguely aware of, and techniques and tools that I do not understand. Yet already this tour is telling more more about pneumatic tubes than I could have imagined. The next blogpost will take you further into the factory, this time to the testing room floor.

All images my own.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

pneumatic sounds

Some pneumatic tube sounds from my factory tour:

Sending ...

And receiving ...

For some other wonderful pneumatic tube sounds listen also to the Buispost blog.