Monday, December 30, 2019

pneumatic tube also has problems

Currently my university is undergoing a cyber attack, and all email systems are down. It makes me wonder if this would happen if we corresponded by pneumatic tube rather than digitally. But of course pneumatic tube systems are not infallible alternatives. They also get hacked, broken into, breakdown and just well, get stuck.

This was the cause of news recently in the Montreal Gazette, because of the delays in patient care that blockages (due for example to spillages in the tube) and electrical faults were causing. The solution is more preventive maintenance. Hopefully my university can find a solution to their own communication problem they are having this Christmas - as much as we all complain about email it might be difficult to send all our correspondence by hand instead.

Image from envac.

Monday, November 18, 2019

is pneumatic post to blame for email?

The digital minimalist Cal Newport starts his New Yorker essay on email, with a description of the pneumatic tube network of C.I.A central headquarters in Langley, Virginia. You can read my previous posts about the C.I.A pneumatic networks here and on the C.I.A webpage. Newport includes some nice details about the system and its closure, including a pin that some staff wore that read "Save the Tubes" (mental note to find that photo! and make the pin?) but his main point is to show how this was an early example of "asynchronous communication":
"The C.I.A.’s tube system is a defining example of one of the major technological movements of the twentieth century: the push to create what communication specialists call “asynchronous messaging” in the workplace.... Asynchronous communication ... doesn’t require the receiver to be present when a message is sent. I can send a message to you whenever I want; you answer it at your leisure."
"As message slips piled up on office desks, what seemed to be missing was a system of practical asynchronous messaging: a way for me to send you a message when it was convenient for me, and for you to read that message when it was convenient for you, all at speeds less sluggish than that of intra-office mail. If such a system could be built, managers thought, then efficient non-real-time collaboration would become possible: no more missed-call slips, no more waiting for the mail cart. In the emerging age of large offices, practical asynchrony seemed like a productivity silver bullet. This belief motivated investment in projects such as the C.I.A.’s pneumatic-tube network."
Of course the C.I.A's system was not an early example of its kind, there were larger, older postal and communication systems across Europe and elsewhere. But Newport does point to an important element that links pneumatic systems and email, which is their asynchronicity, designed to streamline workflow.

In his 1980s film Brazil, Terry Gillam captures perfectly what it feels to have your work streamlined in this way:

Newport writes that "the enthusiastic embrace of asynchronous communication" has created the email monster that many of us have to deal with in our workplaces. He writes that email users check their inbox on average every six minutes. Pneumatic post was also a much more frequent form of postal delivery for its time, with mail deliveries throughout the day. Was this also felt as an intrusion by correspondents?

I remember when email was pure joy - my first email account as an undergraduate university student in the mid 1990s, that I used to contact doctors and researchers in clinics in Mauritius and Canada to organise research and clinical visits. We had a computer laboratory at the university, where we would hang out infrequently, maybe once or twice a week, to send a few emails. As my cohort travelled around the world to our different placements in medical school, we would arrange meet-ups via email. We wrote long letters to each other and back home, rich descriptions of our time away and our observations. When I got back home I printed the emails out and kept them in a box with postcards.

Once working as a doctor I encountered pagers and palm pilots, but only used the computer to write discharge summaries. My phone was for work purposes, not to send messages. And now I find myself in 2019, alongside so many others, hating yet beholden to email. Time away from the thing is punished with more emails. Answers give more questions. Like the main character of Brazil, you stuff one email into the system, only to have five more catapult into your inbox with a thud.

What might happen I wonder, if we turned the vacuum onto itself, as he does in Brazil - what would the digital equivalent of the scene of paper falling from the ceiling tubes in the officeplace look like? Or does this in fact just happen everyday that our computer freezes or the system says "no", and while we wait for the fix, more emails just arrive in the inbox.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

toronto tubes

I spent a three weeks in Toronto recently, and stayed on the 36th floor of a downtown apartment building. It felt high, really high considering I had been living in the Netherlands for so long now. I had to put my garbage down a chute and spent hours of my trip waiting for and riding elevators. It got me thinking about pneumatic tube systems though, and how they traverse vertical distances so efficiently, more efficiently it feels than people or garbage.

It reminded me too of the article "That time Toronto had a system of Pneumatic Mail Tubes", which describes the revolution that the pneumatic tube systems built in the 1930s brought to communication between the city's newspaper, the Toronto Star, and the city hall. The system was a collaboration between the rail, telecommunication and newspaper heavyweights of Canada. Chris Bateman, author of the article in BlogTO, writes that:
In a rare show of co-operation in 1928, Canadian Pacific and Canadian Nation Railways laid what would become the foundation of the Toronto Star and Telegram system by running an elaborate 4,500-metre pneumatic tube network from their respective transmitting offices - at Yonge and Melinda and Bay and Temperance - down Bay to Postal Station A at Union Station. A small spur connected to the mail room at the Royal York Hotel ... Manholes every 300 feet down Bay provided access to the 2 1/4-inch copper tubes - which were laid on a concrete foundation and encased in creosoted wood - in case a canister became stuck.
Two years later, the Star and Telegram joined the pneumatic mail system, installing two sets of pipe in parallel down Bay Street. At its extent, the system included 7 properties, though there was no central exchange and most were only connected to one other place. It's not clear when the pneumatic tubes fell into disuse. The Royal York still has the transparent pipes of its internal system on display but, sadly, its staff have found more convenient (though infinitely less exciting) ways of getting messages through the giant old building." 
I always seem to come across or remember these articles when it is too late and I write this now from back home in Maastricht, trying to remember if I saw any manholes on the street which would have provided access to those tubes. Probably not, I was too busy looking skyward, in awe of all those tall buildings.

Photo: my own

Monday, July 22, 2019

last post

Communications museums are intriguing places. They are museums of something we take so much for granted, something that seems so ephemeral, that changes so quickly, that it is difficult to materialise in exhibitions.

There are many wonderful communications museums I have visited around the world. I get excited about how each museum addresses the challenges above, and how they try and find material traces of communication in different places of that particular site.

I couldn't believe that I hadn't yet visited one of our local Dutch communication museums, COMM in Den Haag, and just happened to be in the area recently when renewing a passport. What great luck, with a few spare hours before we needed to come home, especially as they had a wonderful pneumatic tube display (apparently, according to Wendeline who I bought my tickets from and who kindly explained a bit about the museum, the most popular part of the museum with visitors). Even luckier but also perhaps sadder, it was the last day the museum was open to the public.

So I have included some photos below, for those that will not have the chance to visit in the future. You can also read the museum's post about the buizenpost here. The museum is however open for events, so I am already plotting for a pneumatic tube conference - stay tuned and posted! (and let me know if you are interested)

Visitors had the chance, once travelling through the four floors of the museum to write themselves a message and send it via pneumatic tube to the first floor.

There all the messages were then posted onto a board for visitors to read.

The museum also had a beautifully designed cafe, with what I presume were donors' names (but could be otherwise) on coloured postal boxes, and stamps on the lockers.

Monday, February 25, 2019

zippy sunday

This Sunday I was reminded of all the great blogposts on pneumatic tubes, by a retweet from the author Dennis Cooper, about one of his posts from 2017. There are so many others, many already covered here.

One that I haven't yet mentioned is UnTapped Cities' post called An Illustrated History of NYC's pneumatic tubes, an excerpt basically from Julia Wertz' Illustrated History of NYC, which I have loved revisiting while drawing the illustrations for my current book (not on pneumatic tubes, though hopefully that is to come one day soon).

Photo of tubes in the Time Temp building used through a creative commons lisence, from Michelle Souliere's Flickr page.