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.

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