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,

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.