Saturday, December 26, 2015

hyper testing

Hyperloop Technologies will start testing it's transportation system "of the future" very soon, so WIRED reports. Still being compared to pneumatic tubes, the Hyperloop is gaining more and more press these days.

Forbes recently wrote about the patent implications of the technology. Apparently there have been already 30 inventions related to pneumatic mass transportation, the earliest dating to 1799.

Those interested in reading about the financial details and people managing this project, may want to read this other Forbes article, or for a fascinating review of the new book about the mastermind behind the invention, Elon Musk, see the London Review of Books.

Image of UCLA architecture students' imagined Hyperloopfrom DesignMilk used under a Creative Commons lisence.

Monday, December 21, 2015

zondag post

Zondag, some years ago ...

Thank you Annelies, for the clipping!

"Een bijzonder toestel.". "Algemeen Handelsblad". Amsterdam, 14-03-1886. Geraadpleegd op Delpher op 25-11-2015,

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

mecca's tubes

With millions of worshippers visiting Mecca every year, the Saudi government needed to think of a way in which to deal with the crowds and the material consequences of that many people, namely their rubbish. Scattered around the Hajj mosque, visitors will find 400 little holes where they can deposit their trash and have it whisked away by vacuum, underneath the holy site. Read more in WIRED.

Thanks Jess for sending me this link to this fascinating use of tubes!
Image used under Creative Commons lisence, from Mohd Rasim's Flikr page.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

a building corresponds

According to the anthropologist Tim Ingold, to correspond is to be human (from Allegra TV, Tim Ingold on the Correspondence of Lives):
"Human lives are carried on alongside the lives of beings of manifold other kinds: we respond to them as they respond to us. Lives, in short, are bound in correspondence, and this is what makes them social"
I can't help but have these words in mind when I read this article about the inter-office correspondence of post through pneumatic tubes, our lives intertwined with the network of tubes:

INTER-OFFICE correspondence is shunted about from one. floor to another with lightning-like rapidity, thanks to the pneumatic-tube system of transferring messages, recently installed in the new skyscraper of a New York insurance company. The various tubes shown in the photo below lead to different offices in the building. If a message from the fifth floor must go to an office on the twelfth, it is shot to the dispatching room shown in the picture, where attendants insert it in the proper tube and it is pneumatically delivered to its destination.

My thanks again to Patryk for pointing me in the direction of this article and the world of the Modern Mechanix, from where this image comes!

Friday, November 6, 2015

coping with demand

Pneumatic tubes made news recently in Montreal, as the system at the McGill University Health Centre suffered from an extremely high workload. CBC News reported that the tubes broke down repeatedly over the summer but that the system had now been tuned to cope with the amount of traffic passing through. It is during moments of breakdown that these infrastructures are made more visible, not only to hospital staff, but the public too; those hidden little doors and pipes that many barely even notice.

My thanks to Robert DeDomenico for permission to use his photos of a hospital pneumatic tube system in Vineland, New Jersey, US. Robert is the inventor of the innovative transport network for small loads that has resemblance to pneumatic tubes, CargoFish Physical Internet.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

fast frozen foods

In a chilling account of the American "coldscape" in Cabinet Magazine, Nicola Twilley informs her readers that more than three-quarters of the food consumed in the U.S is processed, packaged, shipped, stored and sold under artificial refrigeration. In a beautifully written piece she traces this coldscape encompassing your home refrigerator, shipping containers, cheese caves, meat lockers, cellars and biobanks.

There could have been another actor in this network, pneumatic tubes. In Long-Haul Trucking and the Technopolitics of Industrial Agriculture, 1945 - 1975, Shane Hamilton describes this possible alternate future, through the coldscape imaginaries of the 1950s; a time when frozen food and refrigeration was seen to revolutionise food disribution and turn vegetable and animal matter into "pure abstractions capable of being transported, sold, and consumed at any time or place":
For example, one agricultural economist, in a fanciful aside in a technical article in 1951, dreamed of a tunnel distribution system whereby homeowners would hook up their freezers to a pneumatic tube that would deliver packages from the frozen food factory on demand (H.J. Humphrey, Temperatures for Frozen Foods, Ice and Refrigeration 121 (August 1951): 52 - 58)"
As my friend Patryk, who sent me this gem, points out "unfortunately long-haul trucks won the competition with pneumatic tubes".

Thanks Patryk for the always fabulous and quirky histories of technologies you send my way, and Alex for the lend of her Cabinet magazine!

Image my own, from the Paris' coldscape underground.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

other autumn odours

It was perhaps the most stunning week I have ever spent in Paris. Late summer spreading into early autumn, gentle light and every day blue skies and 20 degrees. It was buttery toast weather, crisp, decadent, soft and delicious.

So where better to head than the damp, dark, pungent sewer system under Paris' pretty streets in search of pneumatic tubes?

As the last traces of light filtered behind us, my husband and I descended into the sewer museum of Paris, Musée des Égouts de Paris, where I had a sense we might find some traces of Paris' postal pneumatic network.

We were not the only ones seeking out Paris' infrastructural splendours that day - there was a father and his two daughters in front of us, father with clipboard in hand furiously taking notes, while the girls became increasingly bored; a young couple who sped through the museum at lightening speed; a group of Dutch tourists sleeves to their noses.

As we worked our way through the tunnels we found magnificent microbiological paintings, a gallery of living art. The cool limescale smell was gradually replaced by tendrils and whiffs of what one may expect from a working sewerage system and soon we encountered the flowing rivers under our feet, washing away the city's waste. But where were the tubes?

We looked everywhere, and in the dark, couldn't see them. But they were there all along, pointed out to us by the man selling postcards near the exit. We turned our flashes on and there was the sign, "Reseau Pneumatique: Pneumatic Network" modestly hung on a winding pipe.

We followed the pipes as far as we could, until we found their sawn-off ends. It was a little glimpse of that vast network that carried millions of petit bleus at its zenith. Just like 19th century tourists of the sewer system, we marvelled at these infrastructural wonders, now rusty and calcified. What will the tourists of the next generation visit - our underground fiber optical webs, another network hidden from view?

All images my own.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

sampling an unexplored side of Pittsburgh's steel works history

I love receiving mail from people who work with pneumatic tubes, or did so in the past.

The other day I received a wonderful email from an engineer who once worked in a district sales office for a pneumatic tube company in Pittsburgh, U.S. in the early-mid 1960s. His job as a sales engineer was to supervise the installation of the mechanical hardware of the systems. He describes some of the tinkering work required when architects of new buildings such as hospitals didn’t allow for the dimensions of the systems or when vertical lifts were filled with other hardware by the time his crews arrived on the scene meaning boring holes in thick concrete floors.
One of the installations that fascinated him most was that of the heavy duty systems required to carry hot metal samples from furnace floor to the metallurgic lab for analysis during steel making. He writes about this in the context of the history of steel production and coal mining in the Pittsburgh area, during the second half of the 19th century. I had heard of these systems in metal foundries but didn’t know much more about their installations and use so was intrigued to learn more.

The engineer wrote in exquisite detail about the materials used in these systems and carried by the systems. Hot samples were drawn at various stages of the metal making process, poured into moulds and inserted into carriers with special tongs. The carrier would whizz to the lab and a print out of the results returned to the foundry floor within 30 minutes (perhaps be cold carrier, perhaps by telephone (with written confirmation by tube to avoid errors)).

These wonderfully remembered details have inspired me to learn more about the uses of pneumatic tubes in metal foundries, and moreover to learn more from this engineer and others, about their experiences working with pneumatic tubes over the preceding decades. I know I would have a lot to learn from them.

Image credits: "The blast furnaces and rolling mills of the Homestead Steel Works, by H.C. White Co." by H.C. White Co. Photographer - Original source: Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views. / United States. / States / Pennsylvania. / Stereoscopic views of southwest Pennsylvania. This image is available from the New York Public Library's Digital Library under the digital ID G91F319_024F: → Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -,_by_H.C._White_Co..jpg#/media/File:The_blast_furnaces_and_rolling_mills_of_the_Homestead_Steel_Works,_by_H.C._White_Co..jpg

Sunday, August 23, 2015

reporting the pneus

Recently I stayed in a hotel in Amsterdam that was housed in the old headquarters of the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. It was wonderful fun with lots of quirky features as befits the latest hipster hotels these days, from communal workspaces in the lobby to yoga lessons and rooftop DJs. I loved the "Do not disturb, I am writing my first novel" sign for the door which seemed particularly apt as I was working on the my first book project with my colleagues Sally and Susan while there.

Staying in the hotel reminded me of how much times have changed in the life of newspapers, as they not only move to cheaper realestate but their form has changed considerably in just the last decade. Newspaper technologies have continually changed with the times, and it will come of no surprise to regular readers of this blog, that newspaper offices were once home to networks of pneumatic tubes.

Former employes of the Niagara Falls Review recently reminisced about the tubes in their offices in the 1950s. "I also remember the pneumatic tube system" an employee who worked in the office in the late 1960s and early 1970s recalls. "It was how you got copy to the composing room ... You took the copy, put it in a tube, stamped it and up it went".

Photo of the Volkshotel roof from JLG realestate. Stills from Deadline USA and His Girl Friday, from an article by Eric Mink on TV worth watching and Jim Emerson on his website Scanners.

Monday, August 17, 2015

we've looked at fish, now chips

Last time you were sitting at your favourite black jack table did you wonder where all those chips and money were disappearing after being swept up by the dealer's little broom? The answer should be obvious by now!

Several pneumatic tube companies have specialised products for their casino clients, such as Lamson's automated system (described as the "evolution of the drop box", putting a whole new spin on that place we all store our files). Aerocom has systems for gaming pits, count rooms, cash cages and high-roller rooms (amazing words, most of which I didn't even know existed before researching this post).

Pneumatic tubes aren't only in modern day casinos, but have appeared in famous casinos from the past, such as the Resi in Berlin. You can read more about the Resi on one of my previous blogposts, as well as here, at Caberet Berlin.

So we've looked at fish, and now chips. For those interested in both, you can read the fascinating history of fish and chips here!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

no noise, no smell?

Those garbage tubes are making news again. This time The New York Times has published an article on the Roosevelt island tubes, which seem to never cease to amaze. The tubes are painted as noiseless, odorlous invisible labourers sucking garbage at speed, underneath the neighbourhood streets.

The journalist is surprised by how mechanical it all is. No computer screens, just dials. We hear of the ingenious methods for extracting garbage that clogs the system, from lassos and iron crosses and other medieval devices. But my favourite detail of all? The collection of house plants, salvaged from the garbage, carefully placed outside the control room.

Image my own, from my Stockholm fieldwork of the garbage tubes.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

tubes are 10 years old

This year marks the 10th year anniversary of YouTube. What would we do without the wonders of this broadcasting service these days? How else would we learn to cast on, pull teeth, fold t-shirts, test genetics or build our own pneumatic tube systemsThe Guardian reports on other ways in which our lives have changed since we started putting ourselves on the tube ...

Monday, July 27, 2015

island tubopias

Islands are often the site of utopian, as well as dystopian, science fiction imaginaries. Aldous Huxley's Island, where an Englishman is shipwrecked on a Polynesian shore, was written for example as a utopian counterpoint to Brave New World.

Having grown up on an island, I have always been fascinated by other islands, and the specialness of living somewhere completely surrounded by the sea (ironically now I live in a place which is completely landlocked!).

I have never quite dreamed though of creating my own island utopia, as many billionaires do, havens from the regulatory and conservative forces of governments and societal norms. Recently AtlasObscura reported on the utopian island visions of the rich and famous, including one strange tycoon in the 1970s.

Robert Graham, inventor of shatter-proof eyeglass, was a technological optimist (I can just imagine his TED talk now). Graham wanted to design the perfect haven for research, and considered the best way to do so was to start a new country, on an island. He had realestate scouts find options and went about designing a self-sufficient paradise. No cars of course. But certainly greenhouses and eco-friendly sewage systems, and best of all, pneumatic tube travel across the island.

The plans never eventuated into a built reality, although Graham did have a go at attempting to design a perfect society through his Nobel prize winner sperm bank.

Thanks to LongBranch Mike for sending me this great link! Image my own, my island home from the air.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

old tubes in old montreal

I have been to the beautiful city of Montreal on a few occasions. I first visited when I was nine years old, and saw felt what it was like to sink into waist deep snow for the first time. I lived there as a medical student in a basement apartment, and another time, with my sister, who generously shared her studio with me. I remember the smell of St Viateur bagels, the sound of the Tam-Tams, the taste of poutine on a Saturday night. But I cannot remember seeing the pneumatic underground. Look out next time you are in the old town - amidst those old European buildings likes another trace of Europe, but you need to keep your eyes on the ground.

Image from Envac.

Friday, June 12, 2015

more garbage, in museums and books

A short follow-up to my last posts about the pneumatic garbage disposal systems of Stockholm. For those interested in trashy matters living in the Netherlands or nearby, there is to be an exhibition on waste at the fabulous Boerhaave Museum later this month.

If you are further afield but still want to read more about the social life of garbage disposal you could grab a copy of Robin Nagle's ethnography, or read about her work in The Believer.

Robin Nagle has written about the lives of sanitation workers in New York City. Like another NYC anthropologist Wednesday Martin, who is causing waves of controversy this week with her ethnography of upper east side housewives, Nagle has mastered the art of making anthropology of public interest.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

hammarby tubes

I am in luck when we arrive at the GlashusEtt in the Hammarby Sjöstad area of Stockholm, for a group of Italian civil environmental engineering students are being toured around the district and I can join in. The GlashusEtt is funded by the Stockholm water board, testament to the redevelopment of the once industrial area. Saying goodbye to David from Envac, who has been guiding me around Stockholm’s vacuum waste systems, I join the chatting students in a seminar room where we hear about the innovations in sustainable design that characterises this neighbourhood.

The second talk is by Klas, also from Envac. I learn more about their vacuum waste disposal system, first installed in hospitals as a way to remove medical waste and now in over 600 sites in 30 cities around the world. “We use air to do the hard work” a slide reads, “instead of a human being” Klas adds. He tells the engineering students how the vacuum system means that piles of garbage have disappeared, that the streets are quieter without nighttime trash collections from beeping trucks, that there is less physical contact with waste and how neighbourhoods are safer for children to play in.

The audience is fascinated. They have lots of questions and want to know who is responsible for the system, who owns it, how long it lasts, what is the smallest system??? I am curious about how people are trained to sort their garbage correctly. The GlashusEtt presenter tells me that they have school groups visiting from the age of 10, their waste disposal habits crafted from an early age.

Question time is over and we head out into the neighbourhood to see the vacuum waste system first hand. After weaving between bike sheds and raised garden boxes we stop at three submarine-like tubes emerging from the ground, by an apartment block. Klas points out the three different tubes – one for paper, one for organic waste and one for combustible or non-recyclable household rubbish. The organic waste tube has a lock on it so that passersby cannot use it and throw undesirables inside. The apartment residents have the key. The paper tube is also tailored, with a smaller mailbox-like slot inside. This is to encourage users to insert their papers one by one, rather than in a bag, which is easier for compression and recycling. The third tube has no constrictions, other than the size of the round hole into which people can put their garbage.

The students, used to a more chaotic trash collection system in Italy, are curious as to how the residents obey these rules. Klas tells them that they can monitor exactly what is being put where and if one tube becomes a problem, they lock it up. But mostly the residents are well trained he says. Again, I wonder how this system works in other settings, with different kinds of environmental citizens. I wonder how users practices are shaped by the system, and how they tinker with it too.

I also wonder about the kinds of social practices which get rearranged by pneumatic tube systems. One of my last sights of Stockholm, as I am heading to the train station is of a scavenger, arm deep in a trash can, looking for the treasure of a half-smoked cigarette or uneaten sandwich. Not only do pneumatic tube systems impact on garbage routes and nighttime pickups but also the gleaning which occurs not only in India but also many European cities.

Our Hammarby Sjöstad tour ends in another processing site, filled with green and blue tubes. More motors here powering the vacuum sucking the residents’ garbage into three different bins. Like the cobblestone hatch at the waterside, the entrance to this facility is unassuming, revealing little of the vacuum technological wonders inside.

All images © Anna Harris.

My thanks to David Jost and Klas Torstensson for the guided tours of the Envac vacuum waste disposal systems, and to Jonas Törnblom and Malin Lennen for arranging this.