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 ...