Tuesday, December 30, 2014

documents and other objects, flying around

I've been doing a bit of flying in and out of Amsterdam's Schiphol airport recently. During one trip I visited a branch of my bank, to ensure my debit card wouldn't be blocked in the U.S. I had heard that there were pneumatic tubes connecting several branches of a bank in the airport. But there were no signs of the system to be found. Until I opened up my email back in Maastricht that is ...

There was a message from Patryk Wasiak, a cultural historian I met in Copenhagen recently, at the History of Infrastructure conference. And with his note was a scanned picture from a 1981 edition of the "Przeglad Techniczny" (Technical Review). Patryk tells me that the image (below, and enlarged above) accompanied an article about the recently opened airport terminal, celebrating its technological marvels. The caption for the photo says the airport pneumatic tube system was used to transfer travel documents between old and new terminals.

There are so many hidden networks and infrastructures in airports to which travellers are oblivious. We mostly think about how our luggage arrives, or how to get to our gate. We are the moving bodies, maybe our luggage too. But there is a whole manner of different kinds of travelling occurring in these places. Documents from one building to the next in the 1980s. Money between bank branches. Animals in and out of quarantine, nearby nature reserves, crates and cages (see more in Susanne Bauer and colleagues' work on animal ecologies in airports). For non-places, there is a lot moving around behind the departure lounge drudgery and duty-free gloss!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

contamination risk?

Can the use of pneumatic tubes to transport lab samples of a deadly virus lead to wider contamination? This is the fear of some hospital staff where an Ebola patient has been treated recently in Maryland, U.S.

The hospital, in an attempt to calm such fears, issued a statement declaring that while the lab samples of the patient did travel by pneumatic tube during his first visit to the hospital, at no time did they leak or spill from their bag or carrier into the tube system. During the patient's second visit, the pneumatic tube system was not used. Specimens were instead "triple bagged", placed in a container, placed in another container and then hand-carried to the lab via a "buddy system". Contrast this with health facilities in Guinea, where nurses don't even have an adequate supply of gloves, as reported in this blogpost, part of Somatosphere's intelligent coverage of the disastrous epidemic, Ebola Fieldnotes.

Image of biohazard bags for pneumatic tube system, my own.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

from the point of view of a capsule

Some of you may have already seen a video doing the rounds this week through blogs, where a Go Pro video camera takes a ride through a Norwegian parliament pneumatic tube system:

It's not the first tube cam video, nor will I imagine it being the last. This video differs a little from the previously somewhat clunky smartphone videos which have been posted, giving some sense of not only the dizzying trip through the tubes, kind of like metallic endoscopy footage, but also the stops and starts, the turn arounds and switches. The fact that this is a tube system in parliament is interesting. More about that in upcoming posts. The video offers a glimpse of what we don't normally see: the inside of infrastructure, and the way the movement of objects is organised. We feel the pressure and effects of vacuum. And perhaps even a little about what life is like as a pneumatic tube capsule, whizzing from one station to the next.

For those readers interested in the possibilities of, and social consequences of Go Pro cameras, there is a great New Yorker article on the topic.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

birthday post

It's my birthday coming up soon and I've received an early present from a very thoughtful gift-giver:

Yes, I now have my own capsule! It sits on my desk at the moment. I can feel its worn-away felt ends, cold metal body, thready canvas details. I can look inside at its rusty insides. The little door squeaks as it moves, a satisfying suck of air and click as it closes completely. These are the sensory and material details of pneumatic tubes which I love.

If I look closely, engraved on the capsule are the words "The Grover Co. Detroit". My gift giver helps me to research the capsule's provenance. We find that the Grover Company was selling pneumatic tubes at the same time as Lamson, in the early 20th century, servicing department stores whose needs had extended beyond their cash railway systems. William and Clarence Grover founded the company in Woodburn, Michigan, but had branches in Detroit too. In the 1950s the Grover Company filed patents for pneumatic tube terminals. According to the Cash Railway site, Swisslog is the company's descendant. 

I am sure there is much more to discover of the history of my tube.

Image my own.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

hotel post

In the novel I am reading at the moment, Night Film, the characters have just followed the trail of their mystery to the Waldorf Hotel, in New York City. They frantically search for all signs of their victim. If the story had been set 100 years ago, they may have found some traces in the pneumatic tube. The Waldorf Astoria had its very own system for sending cards announcing visitors and other information, shot up in carriers "to the desired floor within a few seconds", according to the hotel website. If you have access to old copies of the Scientific American, you can read more about the system here.

Information and image from: Boldt, George C., 1851-1916, “The Clock; Pneumatic Tubes for Visitor's Cards,” Host to the World, accessed October 21, 2014, http://www.hosttotheworld.com/omeka/items/show/189.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

lost tubes

Lost is one of those TV shows with their very own pneumatic tube system (see others in the list here). The system is located on Station 5, The Pearl, part of the DHARMA research initiative. The pneumatic tubes are used by the Pearl inhabitants, who are part of a creepy experiment to observe others in an experiment, while being observed themselves. The Pearl researchers use the tubes to send in their notebooks filled with observations.

The orientation video for the research instructs: "careful observation is the only key to true and complete awareness". This could be an orientation video for doing ethnographic fieldwork! "Remember, everything that occurs, no matter how minute or of seeming unimportance, must be recorded", the video further explains. Good advice. Time-consuming though. Nevertheless, hundreds of notebooks were diligently filled and sent off in the tubes. To where? Nowhere it seems. The tubes ended up in a desolate space, like landfill, lost in an empty field.

I can't help but wonder if their are similarities here with the digital data-storing practices which research councils are now encouraging (or obliging) researchers to participate in, including anthropologists. Who is going to read through all of those fieldnotes and make sense of an ethnographer's scribblings?

You can watch the Station 5 (The Pearl) Orientation video instructing Pearl inhabitants how to use the system here.

Thanks to Maarten for putting me on to this!

Image and further information from which this post is based from Lostpedia.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

pneumatic tubes on TV: the beginnings of a list

I love lists. Making them, ticking things off them. So its time for another pneumatic tube list. We've already had the list of pneumatic tubes in literature and a list of pneumatic tubes in film. Now for a list of TV shows, where pneumatic tubes make an appearance:

Fantasy Island
Hallo Spencer
The Jetsons
The Simpsons

Please let me know if there is anything missing!

There will be more posts about some of these shows coming up. In the meantime, you can entertain yourself with clips of The Jetsons, Lost or Hallo Spencer.

Friday, October 10, 2014

post-postal conference

I have been to interesting conference destinations before, but I think that the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen takes the cake. How often do you get to go down slides with your fellow delegates, in a room filled with giant postage stamps? Or see a pneumatic tube system in action!? (thanks Andreas)

I am speaking about the New Directions in the History of Infrastructure conference, that took place in the postal museum last month, hosted by Andreas Marklund and Mogens Rudiger. It was the kind of conference where your museum tour guide asks "who here collects stamps?" and a good proportion of the attendees raise their hands.

Over two and a half days, about 20 or so scholars interested in histories of infrastructure met to discuss their latest research. We heard about people smuggling, eavesdropping, sabotage, tinkering and past futures, in amongst talks on railways, the telegraph, metro systems, logistics, bicycle infrastructure and other large scale infrastructure projects. You can read the conference abstract here and see the program here.

It was one of those incredibly inspiring meetings where everyone was open to exchanging ideas during talks, lunches, dinners and coffees. I received good feedback from my talk and found out about even more wonderful uses of pneumatic tubes. As one of the only non-historians in the audience, I was warmly welcomed and loved learning more about the historical approach. I hope to keep in touch with many of the fascinating researchers I met during this workshop.

Images my own, from inside and on top of the Post and Tele Museum, Copenhagen.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

flying fish

You've probably heard of fish ladders, but have you heard of fish pneumatic tubes? This is one of my favourite recent pneumatic tube discoveries - the use of the system in fisheries to move fish around. I reported on it a few months ago in my ten bizarre and incredible uses of pneumatic tubes list. Now the system is making more headlines.

Labelled the salmon cannon, the digital magazine Takepart discusses the use of the technology to separate wild and farmed fish, a task normally done by hand. It's seen as a much more fish-friendly option, the salmon reportedly departing from their pneumatic voyage unscathed. Not all commentators on the story were convinced. Environmental organisations though seem to be on board.

"It may be funny, and it may sound ridiculous, but we're dealing with the serious issue of fish and water usage" Whooshh's vice president Todd Deligan told the magazine. A historian at the recent infrastructure conference I went to in Copenhagen asked me; how do the companies deal with the serious issue of selling something seen as so fun? Obviously from Todd Deligan's comments, it takes a bit of work to convince the public there is a serious side to flying fish through a tube.

Image from treehugger.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

summer in a Dutch park

Unfortunately I didn't find any traces of the Expresso Urbano in Buenos Aires during my holidays. My great tour guide of the city had heard of the system, saying it had been installed at a time when there was much Europeanisation of the city, but that it has not been adequately maintained (or well documented), and like many other infrastructures, fell into disrepair.

While I was hunting for tubes in South America, there were exciting pneumatic happenings in my resident country, The Netherlands. In a park in Groningen, an installation of transparent pneumatic tubes, powered by a household vacuum cleaner, provided delight to passersby.

Designed as a "more accessible, less world-ending, foamier version" of pneumatic tubes, the installation of tubes, containing 1000 black sponge balls whizzing around, is a creation of the artist Niklas Roy.

The installation is interactive - park visitors can change the airflow direction and speed of the balls through motion sensors. The artist has uploaded his own tube cam footage, using a spy camera. You can watch the Fantastic Voyage here.

All images are the artists, used under the creative commons lisence. You can find many more photos of the installation here and of the making of the installation here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

holiday on the expresso urbano

I have been, and will continue to be taking a blogging break over the (European) summer. One of the places I am visiting is Buenos Aires, once home of the Expresso Urbano. For those who can read German, you can find out more about it here on Wikipedia.

I wonder if I will find any traces of the expresso in the tango city?

Image from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

infrastructure histories and postal museums

The Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, has an interactive pneumatic tube system amongst its fascinating collection, which I had fun with on a past visit, and wrote about here and here. In late September this year, the museum will also be home to another fascinating event: a conference on the history of infrastructures.

The program for New Directions in the History of Infrastructure has just been released. There are papers on telegraph systems, post, bicycles and tunnels in sessions about borders and identities, flows of information, meaning and materiality, and politics and power, as well as a Masterclass for PhDs.

I couldn't resist submitting an abstract for a conference to be held in this amazing post museum! Luckily I was accepted, and will be presenting a paper about pneumatic tubes in the materiality session. Here is my abstract:

Surviving in the hospital: The adaptation and persistence of pneumatic tube systems

Invisible to many, hidden in the walls and ceilings of hospitals and other networked institutions, is a technology which has fuelled the imagination of novelists, moviemakers, retronauts and steampunks, but rarely cultural scholars: pneumatic tube systems. There is much however of interest in this deceptively simple infrastructural arrangement, which involves the movement of objects in a vacuum. These systems are remarkably adaptable, over time and place, with uses ranging from expansive postal networks in European and American cities in the 19th Century, to small systems in office buildings in the 1950s, to contemporary supermarkets and banks. This paper focuses on the adjustments which contribute to the ongoing life of pneumatic tube networks in modern life, with discussion of the early stages of an anthropological study of how they are manufactured, designed for, built into, used and repaired in hospitals. Demand for efficiency, the increase number of tests and the rise of the mega-hospital have all contributed to an increasing demand for pneumatic tube technology. While hospitals increasingly become digitised, there remain tissues and blood and other materials which cannot be transported virtually. Each hospital however has its own infrastructural requirements. This observational research will consider adjustments to pneumatic tube systems through the people who work with it (architects, engineers, nurses, pathologists and so forth); the skills, tinkering and improvisations which constitute this work; and the materials which make up and travel the systems, including not only the plastic capsules and blood samples but also the computerized networks and the air through which things pass.Although focusing on the case study of the contemporary hospital, the paper will situate this discussion within a broader consideration of pneumatic tube systems from the 19th century to present day, in a range of settings (including the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen). 

Image from the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen my own.

Friday, July 4, 2014

10 of the more bizarre and wonderful uses for pneumatic tubes (you'll never guess number 8!)

1. Corpse network, Austria

When the Zentralfriedhof, or Central Cemetry, was built on the outskirts of Vienna in the 19th Century, funeral directors had a problem - how to transport those who had died to this new site? Horse-drawn carts were an option, but with all of that snow in winter, were unreliable. That's when an engineer and architect came up with the mad plan of pneumatic corpse travel, moving corpses from the centre of town to the cemetery through an underground pneumatic tube.

The plans were never realised, but you can read more about them and the reasons why they weren't actualised here. I first heard about these incredible proposed networks from the work of sociologist Florian Bettel, currently based in Vienna. If you can read German, check out his chapter on the subject in Junge Forschung in Wissenschaft und Kunst, published by Springer in 2010.

Image of Zentralfriedhof from Florian Rieder's Flikr album.

2. Direct line to Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, US

Jeff Highsmith has to be one of the coolest Dads ever. Struck with the dilemma of explaining how teeth get delivered to the Tooth Fairy, when his son lost is first tooth, he came up with a brilliant solution: a pneumatic transport system of course! He went about designing his own system in his house, for sending teeth, and receiving money in return (there are also options for communicating with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny). Hacking and sawing away, this Cool Dad tinkered in his workshop with iphone, tubing and vacuums until he had made the perfect made-to-measure pneumatic system for his kids. Jeff has written about how you too can make such a home network for communications with fairies, bearded jolly fellows and magical bunnies on Makezine, and there is a video there too to watch.

Image from Makezine.

3. Love hotel payments, Japan

The discrete way to pay for your hour/day/evening in a Japanese love hotel. In love hotels, interactions with staff are minimised as much as possible. Customers may choose their room from screens, and may settle their bill either by pneumatic tube, automatic cash machines or with a "pair of hands" behind a frosted pane of glass.

Image from Selena Hoy's Flikr album.

4. Feline transport, US

On October 7, 1897 a ceremonial demonstration took places at the New York City General Post Office, as a way to celebrate their new pneumatic tube system. In the first canister was a bible wrapped in an American flag, along with a copy of the Constitution, a copy of a presidential speech and some other papers.

In the second was a giant peach. 

And in the third, was a cat. 

The cat, although a little dazed, survived its pneumatic voyage.

Read more about this historic Cat Subway at The Hatching Cat and The Atlantic, and about other cat voyages, such as that made by a sick cat to the vet. Image (Ok not technically of a pneumatic tube, but a close steam-punk look alike, and the cat in it was just too irresistable) is from Mouse Breath, the award winning lifestyle magazine by cats.

5. Cold beer "on tap", Germany

See what these BBQers are so excited about here. For another pretty bizarre and wonderful domestic pneumatic technology, have a look at these pneumatic elevators (or these or these).

6. Disposal of mouse ears and other Disney trash, US

Otherwise known as the Avac System, Disneyworld has an underground garbage disposal system as fantastical as the worlds above ground. The system is relatively simple - workers on the ground pick up trash and put it to bins connected to a pneumatic tube system. Every 20 minutes the system fires, and the trash is moved by compressed air to a collection point, where it is loaded onto garbage trucks. One can only imagine the kind of rubbish that the DisneyWorld pneumatic garbage system has to deal with; mouse ears, glow-in-the-dark tubes, fairy floss sticks?

Image from Military Disney Tips.

7. Fast food, New Zealand

Taking food in the antipodes to new heights, C1 Espresso cafe in Christchurch, New Zealand has its very own Pneumatic Menu of burgers, which yes, indeed, are delivered to your table by pneumatic tube systems.

Image from C1 Espresso.

8. Helping salmon swim upstream, US

First we had cats travelling in the tubes. Now fish.

Due to damming and the lack of fish ladders in the Pacific Northwest, migrating salmon have a hard time getting to breeding habitats. Biologists in Washington however, have been experimenting with a pneumatic tube solution, using Whooshh's patented pneumatic tubes as a way in which to move the salmon by pressurised air, rather than water. According to High Country News, the method is "less stressful for fish than moving them by hand, because it minimizes human contact and returns them to water faster". Scientific tests have shown that there are no obvious injuries in live fish transported through this "unique fish conveyence device". This doesn't matter so much for the fish travelling in tubes installed in processing plants in Norway, where they move from gutting to filleting stations.

Copyright image by Walter Baxter from Geograph, is used under the Creative Commons License.

ead more here: http://www.adn.com/2014/06/23/3530318/alaska-newsreader-pneumatic-tubes.html#storylink=cpy

9. Flower deliveries, Canada

Of the many inventive uses for pneumatic tubes, those in Anne Michael's novel The Winter Vault, are perhaps some of the most whimsical, including an ingenious form of flower delivery:
My father's first job, when he was fifteen, said Avery, was at Lamson Pneumatic Tubes. Ever since I can remember, we shared an affection for pneumatic tubes: ingenious, practical, inexplicably humorous. We loved the idea of an elegant, handwritten note, perhaps a love letter, stuffed into a cylinder and then shot through a tube of compressed air at thirty-five miles an hour or sucked up by a vacuum at the other end like liquid through a straw. My father believed this was the most unjustly neglected technology of the century, and we were continually thinking up new uses for pneumatic tube systems ... He drew maps of London criss-crossed with hundreds of miles of underground pneumatics - little trains of capsule-cars for public transportation; groceries delivered direct from shops to private residences, swooshed right into the kitchen icebox; flowers shot directly from the florist into the vase on one's piano; delivery of medicines to hospitals and convalescent homes; pneumatic school buses, pneumatic amusement rides, pneumatically operated brass brands... (p18 – 19)
Image of the Aalsmeer Flower Auction (home of other wonderful technologies such as the reverse clock auction), my own.

10. Fashion accessory purchases, US

While the vast pneumatic post network in New York City may have disappeared, there are still remnants of pneumatic tube wonderfulness to be found in the city. Warby Parker have recently installed a pneumatic tube system from their basement, to send their glasses to customers in upper floors of their book-lined Upper East Side store. Swatch's Midtown store also has pneumatic tubes delivering their accessories to customers as they wait at the "Watch Bar". All much more fun than buying online.

Images from Pentagram and Warby Parker.

Monday, June 30, 2014

the underwater tunnels

When travelling to Australia recently, Chris Gray from West Yorkshire, UK, was feeling homesick, and wanted to just "nip home". Inspired by Harry Beck's London map, he invented a global Underground network, which would enable travellers to move between countries, and traverse great bodies of water by zooming through tunnels.

This is not a new idea. Connecting countries, and indeed the world, by underwater tunnels has fascinated science fiction writers and engineers for centuries. Jules Verne wrote about underwater travel and underwater pneumatic tube systems can be found in the world of Futurama.

Less fictional, there is of course the Channel Tunnel, now star of a new TV seriesThe Tunnel. And more recently opened, is the much awaited and controversial Bosphorus Tunnel, connecting Asia and Europe. Crossing the Atlantic though has proved more difficult. In the Daily Mail report on Gray's fantastical global network, engineer Robert Benaim suggests that one solution to the perplexing puzzle of how to connect America and Europe, may be a floating pneumatic tube, similar to Elon Musk's Hyperloop. This sounds very similar to Futurama's underwater system, and those of Verne's novels. Once again, fiction and real-life blurs, in the wonderful world of pneumatic tubes.

Image 1 my own, under the Bosphorus one month after tunnel opens in Istanbul, December 2013 
Image 2 from Futurama

Monday, June 23, 2014

pneumatic pulled pork

From the reviews, C1 Espresso sounds like the kind of cafe which makes you want to live in Christchurch, New Zealand. Or at least to visit one day very soon. There seem to be so many fantastical details to this cafe it is hard to know where to start: bookshelf sliding doors; water out of a sewing machine; and from this year, burgers out of pneumatic tubes. I've written about this cafe before, but now I see that they have established a very special Pneumatic sliders menu.

How much more delicious could a pulled pork shoulder burger get, than when delivered to your table at 100 km/hr?

3 burgers and fries are $20. C1 Espresso is open 7 days a week, 7am - 10pm, Corner High and Tuam Streets in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Monday, June 16, 2014

pneumatic correspondence of note

The writers Franz Kafka and Max Brod were great friends. When Kafka died, it was Brod who ignored his request to burn Kafka's life's work, and had them published instead. The two communicated often, including by pneumatic post:

An instant message of its time, Franz was to meet Max with his interesting cousin that evening. A Paraguayan in Prague, and no doubt a lively evening ahead.

Note published in the book of Franz Kafka's correspondence entitled: Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (published 1977).

Friday, June 13, 2014

more tubes on display

Pneumatic tubes create not only wonderful museum exhibits, but also gallery installations too. The network of pipes have inspired artists such as: Yvonne lee Schultz, whose installation Thoughts was installed in the European Patent Office in 2004 (there are many fantastic pneumatic tube related patents in archives, in offices and online!); Serge Spitzer's Re/Search: Bread and Butter and the ever present Question of How to define the difference between a Baguette and a Croissant (II), which was shown at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, in 2010; and most recently, PNEUMAtic circUS's Octo, on display at the transmediale festival for art and digital culture, in Berlin in 2013.

Image of Serge Spitzer's installation at Palais de Tokyo.

Monday, June 9, 2014

pneu and old exhibitions

We can learn a lot about pneumatic tube systems from the material exhibited, and in the archives, of museums. Through such artifacts we learn about the materials used in these systems over time, about the ways in which they were mapped, drawn, and adapted by users. These materials also make great objects for display, offering lots of fun potential for inter-museum romances by post, and other correspondences.
Fantastic pneumatic tube content can be found in permanent installations in museums such as the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen, La Musee de La Poste in Paris, the Museum fur Kommunikation in Berlin, the Technisches Museum in Vienna and the Luftmuseum in Amberg. And in the Museum of London and York's National Railway Museum you can visit two original capsules from the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company.

There are many other science museums which also have small installations, some interactive, such as at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where visitors can feed tennis balls into tubes and at the Museum of Science in Boston, where visitors can send magnetic "letters" by pneumatics. You can watch videos of visitors interacting with the system in Berlin here (including tube cam!) and another terrific one here.

Some museum workshops and exhibitions are more temporary. Several years ago I wrote about the Fast Trash exhibition in New York, which explored the fascinating story of Roosevelt Island's pneumatic garbage system.

A little further back, in 2006 the Smithsonian Museum had a Marvelous Ways to Move Mail exhibition, with the Missile Mail and Pneumatic Tubes activity, involving visitors building cardboard missiles (read more from the museum about pneumatic tubes here).

At the Australian Museum of Democracy, students learn about the Franklin River debate in Tasmania, through an interactive workshop which involves them sending a copy of a conservation act to the House of Representatives chamber through the museums' pneumatic tube system. The students love it!

For those interested in these kind of events, this summer in New Mexico, US, The Parachute Company will host hands-on workshops in libraries specifically about pneumatic tubes. Visitors will find a system of tubes, through which they can send their own messages in canisters. They will be encouraged to use a range of printing techniques to craft their messages, including cryptography. The workshop is designed to explore how networks work, through creative engagements with pneumatic technology. The Parachute Company organises these kinds of events for the public to explore and have fun with technology, art and culture. For more details of this and other workshops this summer, see the Hitchhiker website for New Mexico librarians.

Coming up soon: pneumatic tubes in art galleries
Images from Phanomenta Das Science-Centre, from Wikimedia and from pilot_micha's Flikr page.

Friday, June 6, 2014

tubes fit for a king

My favourite pneumatic tube spotter just sent me a preview for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Is that a luxurious pneumatic tube transporter hidden there?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

archaeological fragments of a mystery

A follow-up on last week's post about the Dreyfus Affair, for at the train station the other day I spied an intriguing poster for a new book by crime writer Robert Harris:

Harris has written a historical fictionalised account of events surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, whose tireless investigations led to the ultimate release of Alfred Dreyfus from imprisonment.

A petit taster. Paris, 1896. Colonel Georges Picquart has handed his trusty officer Lauth the infamous cone of torn-up documents without looking at them yet:
He dons his apron, and while he fetches his box of equipment from his cupboard, I empty the paper sack over his desk. Immediately my eye is caught by a sprinkling among the white and grey of several dozen pale blue fragments, like patches of sky on a cloudy day. I poke a couple with my forefinger. They are slightly thicker than normal paper. Lauth picks one up with his tweezers and examines it, turning it back and forth in the beam of his powerful electric lamp. 
"A petit bleu," he murmurs, using the slang expression for a pneumatic telegram card. He looks at me and frowns. "The pieces are torn up smaller than usual." 
"See what you can do." 
It must be four or five hours later that Lauth comes to my office. He is carrying a thin manila folder. He winces with distress as he offers it to me. his whole manner is anxious, uneasy. "I think you ought to look at this," he says. 
I open it. Inside lies the petit bleu. he has done a craftsman's job of sticking it back together. The texture reminds me of something that might have been reconstructed by an archaeologist: a fragment of broken glassware, perhaps, or a blue marble tile. it is jagged on the right-hand side, where some of the pieces are missing, and the lines of the tears give it a veined appearance. But the message in French is clear enough.
The message implies another officer's guilt and Dreyfus' innocence. The discovery is a pivotal moment in the plot, one that the characters return back to. Harris reconstructs the story from fragments and shards of documents himself, breathing life into that moment. The Evening Standard declares that Harris is committed to the belief that "you can get at a truth as a novelist in a way you can't as a historian - you can bring things alive, the sense of fear, prickly fear, the sweat, the smell of the place and so on".

For those who like the book, apparently the idea came from a lunch with Roman Polanski. So look out for the film soon!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dreyfus bleus

For some years now my friend Patrice and I have been reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. It is a book club of two, with many wonderful evenings spent together, sometimes talking of the book, walking in the botanical gardens, in wine bars or more recently chatting on Skype. At the moment we are reading The Guermantes Way, the third volume. It is here that the narrator becomes immersed in dinner parties and afternoon teas where much talk is of the Dreyfus Affair.

Alfred Dreyfus was a young Jewish artillery officer in the French Army who, in December 1984, was convicted of treason, accused of spying for the Germans. In the following days he was publicly degraded, his medals stripped, his sword broken, spat on by the crowd. After years exiled in prison in a tiny island in the Atlantic, it was to be a pneumatique telegramme, a petit bleu, which would begin a cascade of events leading to the release of this innocent man.

One day in 1986, a petit-bleu, torn-up and never sent, was found in the contents of a rubbish bin in the Germany military post in Paris. When pieced together (see above) the message was revealed, implicating another French officer in the offences attributed to Dreyfus. It took another 10 years before Dreyfus was restored to commission and his innocence publicly declared in the same place where he had been previously dishonoured.

It seems sadly ironic that a torn-up telegramme led to the release of Dreyfus, considering that it was torn-up documents that led to his conviction (where bizarrely the lack of correspondence between Dreyfus' writing and that of the document was proof of "self-forgery"). This was a very important moment in French history, a topic of much Paris salon repartee, and by the end of the 19th century a pre-occupation of many in the country, with camps divided. Indeed some argue that we are still in the midst of Dreyfus Affairs, where national panic takes false prisoners.

Information for this blogpost largely sourced from Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker (September 28, 2009).

Image from Europeana

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

no longer the dead centre of town: pneumatic burials

Whenever we would drive past a cemetery on family roadtrips, my dad would often point out the window and say "there is the dead centre of town".

What happens though when cities get so big that they have to start burying their dead outside them, for reasons of space and hygiene? This was a problem that faced Vienna in the late 19th Century, and so a new cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof, or Central Cemetery, was built on the city's outskirts. There was a problem though with this new arrangement - being almost 9km out of town, how to transport those who had died to this new burial site?

Initially transport relied on horse-drawn cart. In poor weather, especially snow, this led to all kinds of chaos however, with coffins sometimes left in taverns along the way. Another solution had to be found. And so the engineer  Franz von Felbinger and architect Josef Hudetz came up with the ingenious plan of pneumatic corpse transportation.

Published as Begräbnishalle mit pneumatischer Förderung für den Centralfriedhof der Stadt Wien, the proposal was as follows, as reported in Scientific American on October 3rd 1874 (and summarised in the Otago Witness February 13th 1875):
It is proposed to erect a grand monumental hall or temple, which is to be divided into three portions, a middle hall and two smaller ones, the former to be devoted to the use of Roman Catholics, and the latter respectively to Protestants and Israelites. These apartments will be subdivided into chapels suitably furnished and decorated.
On a funeral taking place, the body in its coffin will be deposited in a sarcophagus in the centre of one of the chapels, and the ceremony proceeded with. At the conclusion, the chief mourner touches a spring, when the sarcophagus sinks noiselessly through the floor. This corresponds to the public burial, as far as the mourners are concerned, they have nothing further to do with the body. On its arrival, however, in the cellar, men stationed for the purpose attach a check to the bier, showing to which cemetery it is to be forwarded, and place the body, with three others, in an iron car which fits in a subterranean tube, running on trucks placed therein, after the plan described by us as followed in the construction of the experimental section of the pneumatic railway under Broadway in this City. This tunnel in Vienna will be 15,000 feet long, and the carriages will be propelled through its entire length, by means of a blast of compressed air, in about ten minutes.
The incredible pneumatic burial plan was never realised, reportedly due to technical problems and "issues of peity". Corpses were eventually transported to the cemetery by tramline in the early 20th century, then motorised hearse.

This is an intriguing chapter in the story of people moving by pneumatic tube, which raises many interesting questions: What were the issues of peity, that worked against the proposal? How much did the Viennese public know of these plans, and what did they think of them? It is fascinating that the religions were separated above ground, yet bodies were propelled through the tunnel together - or were they to be differentiated here too, with separate religious tracks or trolleys  in the system? The notion of the noiseless sinking into the subterranean tube correlating with a public burial is also intriguing.

From what I can find, there seems little written about the plans in English (although see references below). I do know that the researcher Florian Bettel, from the Universität Mozarteum Salzburg has written on the topic in German, for those who are interested, and for those interested in pneumatic systems in Vienna more generally, you may find the publication below, in English and German, a good read (if you can find a copy to buy online).

Information for this post obtained from Vienna: A Cultural History by Nicholas Parsons and Vienna: A Doctor's Guide by Wolfgang Regal and Michael Nanut. For more information about the pneumatic postal system in Vienna see The Pneumatic Post in Vienna by Colin Tobitt and Andy Taylor, published in English in 2005. Image of patent for "Method of preserving dead bodies" from Atlas Obscura.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

touring underground

Summer is approaching in Europe and as the skies become bluer and the sun slightly warmer, some of us are dreaming of holidays trips in places a little cooler and darker: the underground.

For centuries tourists in Europe have been fascinated by the underground. In Notes on the Underground, Rosalind Williams writes of popular destinations for 19th century travellers such as caves in Belgium and sewers in Paris. Along with the Magic Underground Tunnels, these subterranean honeypots are also on my travel wishlist, especially the Les Grottes de Remouchamps in The Belgian Ardennes, the Musée des égouts (The Museum of the Sewers) in Paris (thank you Melissa!), and the watery labyrinths of the Dutch city Den Bosch.

For pneumatic tube enthusiasts there are a number of underground tours, such as the Berliner Unterwelten, which has previously run special tours of the pneumatic tube system such as for students of the MA Historical Urban Studies program at the Centre for Metropolitan Studies in Berlin, and annually Atlas Obscura often runs a tour of the Stanford Hospital pneumatic tube system.

Images from Berlin underground tours from Toni Escuder's, escpeapalumni and Maha's Flikr pages.

Friday, April 18, 2014

the magic underground kingdom

Earlier this week, I posted about a conference in Tallinn, with a photo of the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It seemed perfect to follow up that post with a picture of another building, with at least some visual similarities: Cindarella's Castle. Why? Because I have recently discovered something you may already have known about, a secret world underneath a magic one: Magic Kingdom's underground tunnels, including, of course, a pneumatic tube system.

I remember going to Disneyland when I was young, finding out it was a small world after all, riding the monorail, seeing my first 3D film, and waving glow-in-the-dark sticks with my sister during the night parade. It was an amazing holiday and my whole family had a ball. Little did we know though that the fantastical themepark had a major flaw which bugged Walt for years: cast members had to walk through one themed area, to get to another themed area, in costume, to get to and from work, looking all out of place! Disney wanted to fix this with the Florida themepark so he designed the Tunnel system:

According to blogger Steve, a long fan of Disney World who worked there for three years, the tunnel was a hive of activity, with cast members walking along, electric carts, maintenance workers on bicycles and much more. Overhead was all the electrical wiring and plumbing. And the pneumatic tube system, otherwise known as the Avac system.

The Avac system is a garbage system. Trash is picked up from Disneyworld by workers on the ground and dropped into bins which are connected to tubes. Every 20 minutes the Avac system "fires" and the trash is pushed through the large tubes with compressed air, through the whole tunnel to another collection area where garbage trucks pick it up. Apparently if you are standing in the tunnel "it sounds as if a tornado is quickly approaching, then passes you by".

Magical trash disposal! From Tomorrowland to the tip. For those as fascinated by this system and those underground tunnels as me, you are in luck. There is a walking tour which spends some time in the tunnel, something to book for your next trip to Magic Kingdom (but not for those under 16 - apparently according to Hidden Mickeys, "because it would bother children, seeing two Goofys passing each other, Mickey without a head, seeing Minnie eating with Snow White, and ruin the magic". In the meantime, for those who can't make it on the tour and aren't too afraid by what they may see, here is a link to a video of the underground.

Creative Commons image of Cindarella's Castle from Matt Wade photography, via Wikipedia. Other images from MilitaryDisneyTips.com, where much material for this blogpost was also sourced, as well as from HiddenMickeys.