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 Archive.org and Icewhistle.

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