Friday, February 28, 2014

in the CIA set

Installing pneumatic tubes in film sets would have to be one of the more glamorous commissions for pneumatic tube suppliers. Thanks to a recent comment on this blog I found out that Scorsese isn't the only filmmaker to have demanded such close attention to detail on his set, as to install pneumatic tubes. Ben Affleck was also a stickler for detail when making his film Argo. The same vendor who supplied tubes for Wolf of Wall Street also supplied tubes for Argo, so that the filmmakers could replicate the CIA offices of the 1970s.

I've written in a previous post about the CIA pneumatic post system. Affleck used the L.A. Times building to film the CIA scenes, and as InfidelWorld reports, the use of "ancient technology" such as pneumatic tubes helped to set a tone of decline and uncertainty. Argo production designer Sharon Seymour tells Variety that her and her team went to some effort to track down old typewriters, computers, telephones and TV sets for the CIA office scenes, as well as build the pneumatic tubes, "to make audiences think about how communications have changed".

The question now remains: will the tubes be a lucky charm at the Oscars another year round?

Images of the Argo set from DeadlineUntapped Cities and image of a CIA pneumatic capsule from CIA's Flikr page.

Friday, February 21, 2014

wolves use tubes on wall street

At the movies the other night, watching Wolf of Wall Street. It's Jordan Belfort's first day as a stock broker, the beginnings of his infamous career. He is being shown around the place by Mark Hanna. Hanna is on the phone, makes a sale: "Done! Time to paint the tape! Wooh! A two thousand Microsoft goin' in the hole!". And there goes the ticket into the pneumatic tube. "It's alive, it's alive. Hold on to that, it's hot" Hanna yells. Jordan takes the capsule and opens up the door to the pneumatic tube system. "In in" Hanna urges. Jordan closes the door and it is off. "Sold!" Hanna exclaims!

This movie scene draws from Belfort's memoirs (an excerpt of which was published in Newsweek) of his first impressions of the chaos of Wall Street. He talks of pandemonium - buzzers and loudspeakers and shouting (the roar of the mob), sounds he writes he knew he'd never forget for they were the sounds of greed and ambition, which would come to define his own life. He describes the role that the tubes had to play in this chaos:
Every so often a broker would slam his phone down in victory and then fill out a buy ticket and walk over to a pneumatic tubing system that had been affixed to a support column. He would stick the ticket in a glass cylinder and watch it get sucked up into the ceiling. From there, the ticket made its way to the trading desk on the other side of the building, where it would be rerouted to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for execution. So the ceiling had been lowered to make room for the tubing, and it seemed to bear down on my head. 
He was so smooth on the phone that it literally boggled my mind. It was as if he were apologizing to his clients as he ripped their eyeballs out. 'Sir, let me say this,' ... Two minutes later Mark was at the tubing system with a quartermillion-dollar buy order for a stock called Microsoft. I’d never heard of Microsoft before, but it sounded like a pretty decent company. Anyway, Mark’s commission on the trade was $3,000. I had seven dollars in my pocket.
Not for long.

Use of pneumatic tubes on the stock exchange dates back to the 1920. The scene above, set in 1987, must be describing one of the last remnants of the pneumatic tube system on Wall Street, as according to A Financial History of the United States, by the mid- 1960s Wall Street firms were gradually replacing pneumatic systems with computerised systems. Although only a very brief moment in the movie, according to New York Arts, Scorsese did some painstaking research into the function of pneumatic tubes, for his historical portrayal of the stock exchange in the 1980s.

Movie quotes from moviequotesandmore.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

pneumatic tubes vs human based transport

Something which often goes unsaid in much writing about the wonders of pneumatic tube technology, is that they are used in many places to replace staff. Or, as described in one Indian press release, "human based transport" (or HBT, as it is abbreviated to). There have been a few articles from India that I have come across describing how pneumatic tubes can replace (or displace) work performed by individuals such as ward boys, orderlies, patients' attendants and relatives. For example, Healthcare Express reports some of the problems of HBT:

1. Delays: "Hospital's staff carrying the materials may get diverted to a corner for a quick cigarette or a bidi or even choose to have a quick cup of tea with his or her friends - not realising the critical life saving time being wasted".
2. Mistakes: "During the physical carrying of test tube samples, the carrier staff member suddenly trips over and the samples/materials fall off and break" (again loosing critical life saving time). Also, samples and materials may become mixed up, in this "conventional mechanism", which may have grave consequences.
3. Theft: "A universal problem, invariably theft is very common during transportation of drugs, instruments and other materials".
4. Exposure: Confidential and classified materials could be exposed to "unwanted personnel".
5. Biohazard: Carrying a sample involves risk of exposure and cross-infections
6. Personnel: "over-hiring of staff etc"
7. Energy: "Use of dumb waiters and elevators for running such errands causes high consumption of energy".

In the Hindu Business Line, readers are asked to imagine the following possibilities:
Situation A: Someone in your family is admitted in hospital. The patient obviously will need an attendant by his/her side to buy the medicine prescribed (if not anything else) from the pharmacy located (invariably) within the premises. Imagine climbing the stairs or waiting for the lift every time a prescription is issued. While this gives the attendant some respite from the confines of the room, from being near the patient all the time, it may also involve a lot of running around. 
Situation B: The patient has to be moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU)/Operation theatre. Imagine the time that one needs to wait before the stretcher or wheel chair is brought in to help move the patient. As seconds tick, the attendant's blood pressure tends to rise. If only technology can help solve such issues….
Technology is there to the rescue - pneumatic tubes obviously. Each of the two articles above propose pneumatic tube technology as the solution to these human transport based dilemmas. At Kovai Medical Centre and Hospital, pneumatic tubes are reported in the Hindu Business Line to have led to a much quieter hospital: “With the installation of the PTS, the working atmosphere at the pharmacy and laboratory has become strangely silent since the number of encounters by staff in service areas and conversation with patients' assistants have vanished,” says the hospital president. The pneumatic tube system now makes around 600 transportations a day, replacing the trips made by ward boys/girls. The tube system in Kovai is also viewed as correcting human errors made with mixing-up samples, and most importantly, preventing cross-infection, as, according to the hospital president, "the patient assistants or ward staff need not move in and out of the patient area in their street shoes,”. The final line of the Hindu Business Line article alludes to where all of these human based transporters (called the unskilled workforce) may potentially be deployed: in distributing linen and instrumentation sets at the nursing station.
Image of Nigel Rapport's beautiful ethnography of hospital porters, Of Orderlies and Men.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

pneumatic tubes in literature: an updated list

Some further additions to the literature list, from my own reading and some help from the Wikipedians:

Paul Auster: Invisible
Jordan Belfort: The Wolf of Wall Street
Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451
Jessica Grant: Love in the Pneumatic Tube Era (in Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow, edited by Zsuzsi Gartner)
Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy
Shena Mackay: The Atmospheric Railway: New and Selected Stories
Ian McEwan: The Innocent
Anne Michaels: The Winter Vault
George Orwell: 1984
Marcel Proust: The Way by Swann
Neal Shusterman: The Downsiders
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five

Further additions courtesy of Wikipedia:

Umberto Eco: The Prague Cemetry
Theodore Fontane: Frau Jenny Treibel (1892)
Moreton Freedgood (pen name John Godey) (1973): The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Robert Heinlein (1949): Gulf
William Marshall: Faces in the Crowd
Albert Robida (1882): The Twentieth Century
Jean-Paul Satre (1945): The Age of Reason
Jules Verne: Paris in the 20th Century
Michel Verne (1888): An Express of the Future
Michel and Jules Verne (1889): The Day of an American Journalist in 2889

Please add to the list in your comments!

(to come - pneumatic tubes in film and TV)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

pneumatics at 10 Downing St

In reading through the fascinating Talk page of the pneumatic tube Wikipedia entry the other week I came across this intriguing addition from a Wikipedian, from Peter Stothard's Thirty Days: An Inside Account of Tony Blair at War. It was a description of the underground Foreign Office (compared by him to the White House Situation Room):
Six small offices are connected by low corridors, stained white walls and scuffed blue floors that need the attentions of Ecovert and Hetty. The mood is more military than diplomatic. A young team of shift-workers, operating both encrypted computers and antique compressed-air communication tubes, gathers intelligence, turns it into memoranda and tries to make sure that the right people read it.
The Wikipedian proposes that the tubes were used in the 10 Downing Street Complex as late as the first half of 2003. In The Official History of Britain and the European Community, Stephen Wall also writes of a pneumatic tube system which ran between 10 Downing St and the Foreign Office. These stories add to the intrigue of pneumatic tube implicated in the transportation not only of lovers' secrets, but politicians' as well.

Image from