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, where much material for this blogpost was also sourced, as well as from HiddenMickeys.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

cybernetic dreams and future archeologies

In July this year I will be joining other anthropologists in Tallinn, Estonia, to imagine infrastructures of the past, present and future. I am very excited that my paper on pneumatic tubes was accepted for the panel Infrastructure and imagination: Anthropocene landscapes, urban deep-ecology, cybernetic dreams and future-archeologies, at the 13th European Association of Social Anthropologists Biennial Conference.

Juan Rojas Meyer and Roger Sansi, both in London, are organising the panel which will explore infrastructures as generative sites of ethnographic inquiry, and their potential to motivate the imagination. Topics of papers in the panel sound fascinating and include water supply in Africa and Nepal, waste treatment in Athens, the TransAdriatic Pipeline and clouds. Here is my abstract:

Pneumatic tubes: George Jetson used them to get to work, Antoine Doinel to send a love letter, and the Ministry of Truth to deliver history needing rewriting. These hidden labyrinths of pipes which transport matter by vacuum not only exist in the dreams of cartoonists, filmmakers and science fiction writers, but also engineers of the technological past, present and future. Once traversing the undergrounds of cities for postal delivery or depositing orders on the stock exchange, pneumatic tube networks are nowadays ever increasingly built into the walls, ceilings and basements of hospitals, banks and supermarkets. For despite digitisation, objects still need to be moved from one place to another. Counter intuitively, unlike many technologies of the past, pneumatic tube infrastructures have both changed very little over time and are being used in more contexts than ever before. With this paper I take session participants on a short subterranean tour of the intertwined past, present and future of pneumatic tubes. I examine the materials of this sociotechnical system; plastic capsules, brass buttons and air through which things pass. I look at bodily practices entailed in the manufacture, architectural design, everyday use and repair of the technology, including the adjustments which go to making it work. In Stoic philosophy, pneuma is "breath of life", the active and creative presence in matter. A study of pneuma-tic systems leads to bigger questions of how to consider the "pneumatic qualities" of infrastructures, the creativity that breathes life into the material world we live in.

Image of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia from Wikipedia Commons.
See also: How to send Estonian vodka through the pneumatic internet, in Wired Magazine.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

tubes still run in the snow

The weather is something which social scientists often forget to talk about when they write about technologies. The atmosphere, the elements, wind, rain, sun are left out of accounts. Yet, as the case of pneumatic tube systems highlights, weather is important. Damp, salt, snow, rain all affect the materials of which pneumatic tubes are made, the leather and brass, for example. The Atmospheric Railway in Devon was particularly affected by the difficult weather conditions of the region, partially leading to its demise.

"Bad" weather however has also been a justification for the use of pneumatic tube systems. In the Report of the Postmaster-General to Congress about the use of pneumatic tube systems for the transmission of mail, in 1900, it was argued that the system was safe and difficult to interrupt. Indeed a postmaster in Boston testified that during violent snowstorms, when street traffic was suspended, mail was still delivered by pneumatic tube. Similarly another story was reported, where pneumatic tubes saved the delivery of copies of the New York Herald, intended for readers west and south. The newspapers could not have arrived at the Railroad depot in time by wagon, but a series of tube journeys meant that the newspapers could be sent out without too much delay.

And so these predictions about the usefulness of pneumatic tube systems in New York City during inclement weather proved correct. After a snowstorm 10 years or so later, in 1914, the Pneumatic Tube Postal Commission reported that "New York streets were almost impassable -- New York business houses nevertheless received their important mail on time! The pneumatic tubes carried the mails".

Image from February 1969 nor'easter Wikipedia page, and some historical details from and Icewhistle.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

pneumatic tubes on film: a list

Undergrounds, streets, shares, shadows, kisses, love letters, ghosts, slime, memories, memos, control, spies and many many secrets - this is pneumatic tubes on film and the beginnings of a list:

À bout de souffle
Baisers Voles (Stolen Kisses)
Le Courniaud (The Sucker)
Ghostbusters II
Olsenbande-Filme (Part 12)
The Living Daylights
The Shadow
Une Femme est une Femme
Wolf of Wall Street

What is missing?