Wednesday, April 29, 2015

library's keynote

In a delightful essay on pneumatic tubes accessible from the media studies scholar Shannon Mattern's website, she writes of her memories of pneumatic tube systems in libraries:
The hiss of the tubes – although not quite as immediate as the whoosh at the bank – is, to me, the library’s keynote, as the composer R. Murray Schafer might call it. It is the audio track over which the building’s other sounds – heavy wooden chairs scraping across terrazzo floors, books thumping on tables, whispers ricocheting off hard surfaces – are laid (author’s emphasis)

I don't have any sound recording of library tubes, but I do have this great picture above, from 
John Caserta's lecture notes on Serendipity in the Digital Library. I also love the image in this wonderful essay of the newspaper readers. I still remember reading newspapers in the Tasmanian Public Library this way, complete with rulers and string. And more recently, looking for medical textbooks through the card files in the basement of my medical library, where old journals are stored in compressed stacks.

Libraries have not turned completely digital. While the pneumatic tube systems for sending books may have largely disappeared (except for a few places such as the Law Library Reading room at the Library of Congress), look out for the old card files, newspaper strings and compressed stacks, and when you find them, be careful - unlike compressed files, these places do have their dangers of getting squashed!

Mattern, S. (2010) Puffs of air: Communicating by vacuum In John Knechtel, Ed., AIR, Alphabet City #15 (Cambridge: MIT Press), p43. Accessed from (thanks to David Holt for recommending this to me)

Card file image my own, from recent fieldwork in medical libraries in Melbourne, Australia.

Friday, April 24, 2015

pneumatic postal kit

Unlike the telegraph of the past and the SMS of the present, pneumatic post maintained its material form throughout its journey. This meant that the senders' instant messages could be scented with perfume, the receiver able to read correspondence handwritten and hand-drawn. The letter's journey was traceable through stamps and other markings.

Pneumatic tube systems are important for moving objects which carry personal traces of the sender, whether this be a tissue sample for pathological analysis or a handwritten letter. Letter writing has now become more of a craft rather than the everyday activity it once was. While the days of sending scented instant messages under our city streets have disappeared, I may have just found a lovely alternative from the Letter Writers Alliance: their Pneumatic Post kit.

From the website:
Remember the joy of going to the drive-through at the bank and popping that deposit tube into the pneumatic pipe? Bring back that sense of wonder with our Pneumatic Post. This kit brings back the Victorian pneumatic tube system and updates it for today. A great way to add an extra special bit of magic to a letter. We give you everything in the kit to send the Tube back and forth, even the postage for the first mailing! Write your message, roll it up, and pop it in the Pneumatic Tube. You can even add extra treats in the tube to add an extra ray of sunshine for your awesome correspondent.
Unfortunately the kit is not for international members (presumably non-US members). International letter writers however might want to search elsewhere on the site for other correspondence kits that take their fancy. Like this gorgeous Telegram Stationary for example.

The mission of the Letter Writing Alliance is as follows:
In this era of instantaneous communication, a handwritten letter is a rare and wondrous item. The Letter Writers Alliance is dedicated to preserving this art form; neither long lines, nor late deliveries, nor increasing postal rates will keep us from our mission.
Image from the Letter Writing Alliance website, used with permission.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

sounding infrastructure

Pneumatic tubes have often been a source of inspiration for artists, such as Serge Spitzer, Niklas Roy, Yvonne Lee Schultz and Vittore Baroni. The other day I came across another pneumatic art installation: Playing the Building by David Byrne.

In this stunning looking sound installation, a retrofitted organ becomes connected to a building's infrastructure, playing it like an enormous instrument. Through pneumatic tubes and wires and cables, the organ is attached to metal beams and pillars and heating pipes, causing them to vibrate and resonate in order to produce sound. 

The installation was first exhibited in Stockholm in 2005, then later in New York City (2008), London (2009) and Minneapolis (2012).

Images from Flikr, used under the Creative Commons lisence, from Quinn Heraty, Russ Garrett, JellyBeanz, and Chris Guy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

sensory map of an imaginary pneumatic tube system

I have been wondering what a map of an imaginary pneumatic tube system, for a fantastical city of the past, present or future might look like ... or smell like ... or taste like ... or sound like ... For why should maps be restricted to beautiful lines and pictures?

I am inspired by the taste map of the London underground, created by James Wannerton of Blackpool in the UK. Wannerton has synaesthesia, a condition which means that the senses become intermingled in interesting and sometimes disturbing ways. For Wannerton, it means that he can taste words. His map is filled with tube stops that he has tasted, from cold Horlicks and crisp sandwiches to coal dust and burned rubber. What would pneumatic tube stops taste like? In Christchurch, where pneumatic tubes transport burgers and fries from the kitchen to hungry diners, they might be rather tasty. In the hospital it might be a bit different! Imagine a network that transported all different kinds of materials at the same time: burgers through one line, letters through another.

I am inspired too by Kate McLean's smell maps. In Paris, letters sent by pneumatic tube could be scented by perfume, the scent lingering in the little capsules. On Roosevelt Island however, it is garbage which moves through the tubes, leaving a lot less pleasant smell. Further inspiration can be found in the many sound maps online. Sounds could be recorded of landing and take-off, or rumbling journeys and expressions of delight or dismay at the contents of capsules, such as those that I have uploaded onto SoundCloud.

I am having lots of fun imagining all the sensory stops on my fantastical map. What would your imaginary pneumatic map sound, smell, feel, taste and look like?

For more about pneumatic tube maps, see my series of blogposts in 2010 and 2011.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

diagnosing by sound

Last week I wrote about how engineers used sound as a way to diagnose problems in pneumatic tube systems. I also wrote a blogpost for another site on this topic, which may interest some readers, about the use of sound in medical diagnosis, which you can read here.

Image of the great listener physician William Osler at the bedside, from Wellcome Images.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

hospital maintenance and flying coke bottles

It’s lunchtime and across the hospital foyer doctors and nurses are hurrying to eat, patients are wandering around in back-less gowns gripping IV poles and white-coated staff are wielding trolleys of biological samples. I find Cees where he said he would meet in the central hall and introduce myself. Cees is a Dutch engineer with over 30 years of experience working with pneumatic tubes (currently at Swisslog). He has offered to give me a tour of the hospital’s pneumatic tube system, which he is currently working on. I have to thank Ilona from Swisslog for setting this meeting up, a connection made after we started corresponding about casino systems.

Cees is intrigued as to why I am blogging about pneumatic tubes and we soon enter into an animated discussion, as we make our way down a hospital corridor, of their many fascinations. He tells me that the system has now been closed at the hospital for almost two weeks while they have been doing some checks and updating the system (replacing circuitory boards, changing diverters, adding further maintenance stations and software updates). As a result the hospital has had to hire eight people during the day, five in the evening and four at night to transport blood and other tissues around the hospital. At a substantial cost. Pneumatic tubes it seems, saves this hospital a lot of money when they are in use.
Soon we veer off the busy corridors and stairwells into the loud hum of the service room on the 4th floor (close to the laboratory on the 5th). Whoosh, a capsule whizzes by overhead. We head over to the pneumatic tube system blowers, which wheeze and spin. A few more capsules arrive and are sent out again. 1200 – 1400 a day Cees tells me, when the system is fully operational, which is a lot for a relatively small system. We meet some other members of the repair team and together we head off to the cafeteria where we drink Coca Colas with our names on them and eat sandwiches. The team once worked together for Coca Cola, designing a system which would deliver drinks to customers at the front of stores by a tube (straight from the sky, Gods Must be Crazy style). The system was never rolled out on a large scale but a proto-type was installed in Copenhagen airport. You can watch the video of them installing the system here.

Over lunch we talk about how different hospitals use pneumatic tube systems differently. In some places there are few repairs needed, in others many. Mostly related to human error. They laugh over the story of a nursing student who was told to send some documents by pneumatic tube and put them straight into the system, without a capsule. Breakdowns can happen at any time, the engineers are on call. Their job is also to do preventive maintenance, which is why they are in the hospital. They are using a well-fitted-out capsule which tests g-forces, speed and shake, all factors which might disrupt the samples being carried. This special capsule replaces the samples of blood which were previously used to test the system, a problematic practice as Cees pointed out: not only expensive but ethically complicated considering the circumstances of donation.
After lunch we head back to the service room to see how the checks are going. There is a little storeroom out the back, stacked with capsules and sending and receiving stations. Cees shows me how they are updating the circuit boards, which now need to store a lot more information as tracking becomes more widely used. Everything he says needs to be traced, just in case there is “an incident”: not only where the capsule is but also what is in the capsule and who is sending it too. Barcodes are crucial in the tracing and one of the ways in which pneumatic tube systems are changing.

We talk for a while longer and Cees tells me a wonderful story about how engineers use the skill of listening to sound (one of my current research projects), what he called a “professional madness” in his field. If a capsule gets stuck Cees says, you can hear a particular sound, a sisssssss and you know where the blockage is. He had a colleague with a particularly “good ear”. During his visits to hospitals he would have his head cocked, listening for abnormalities in the system. The hospital staff wondered if he had escaped from the psychiatric unit. Things have changed now and the systems are more insulated, hidden away out of earshot.
Our tour is at an end and once again I am amazed and how this system continually adapts in each location and time period. Cees comments that he thought the industry might be finished with the invention of the fax machine, but here they still are. Pneumatic tube systems continually adjust to the market, changing it in the process. The need for this technology does not seem to be abating. Most new hospitals of a certain size have pneumatic tube systems installed. These systems need continual maintenance and repair, all happening in the service rooms and behind the walls of busy hospitals, the only sign of these systems in place being during moments of breakdown or stoppage, when the white-coated casual staff appear, wielding their rumbling trolleys with samples through the corridors.

Image my own.