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:

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.