GET THEM ON THE BLOWER
March 4, 2015 5:53 AM   Subscribe

 
Well, that certainly is everything you'd ever want to pneuow about pneumatic tubes!

There's a really great episode of 99% Invisible about pneumatic tubes, too (17 minute podcast).
posted by oulipian at 5:59 AM on March 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


Great article!

I was charmed to notice a few years ago that a local supermarket was using a pneumatic messaging system. The cashier put a wad of notes into a capsule and opened a small door in a tube (which looked quite modern and ordinary, like housing for cables), and off it went with a whump. I could hear it rattling upwards and away across the ceiling.
posted by distorte at 6:16 AM on March 4, 2015


On the other end of the pond, tubes in New York have been repurposed to route fiber optic cable.

Why postal workers in the Big Apple decided to send a live cat through the old system in 1897 I'll never know.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:21 AM on March 4, 2015


Good one indeed. I remember pneumatic delivery in drive-through banks in 1970's southern California.

What I really like about this article is that it's a very good example of the trend of "web article" presentation and layout.
posted by rmmcclay at 6:21 AM on March 4, 2015


I was working at the old Main Library in downtown Jacksonville, Florida when we made the transfer of materials to a new building. The old one had pneumatic tubes throughout, though they weren't being used. After years of laying empty, the building finally got purchased and is being made into a big center for nonprofits. They've made an effort to retain the original architecture, and I am truly hoping they kept the tubes as well (maybe even got them working again).
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:29 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


What makes me feel like I was born in the wrong time:

1. Automats
2. Pneumatic tunes

What makes me realize this is probably the time for me:

1. Everything else.

posted by MCMikeNamara at 6:33 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh man I daydream about going to the automat and watching Agent Carter just made that yearning stronger. Pneumatic tubes are also cool.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:39 AM on March 4, 2015


Oh man I daydream about going to the automat and watching Agent Carter just made that yearning stronger.

They still have them in the Netherlands; you have options.
posted by fifthrider at 6:45 AM on March 4, 2015


I've mentioned here before that one of the many servers I support at a hospital is a server that controls a pneumatic tube system. Two systems, actually, so four servers counting the backups. These things send blood from the clinics down to the labs 24/7 and run all over two different buildings. If a sample gets stuck for more than a few seconds it is ruined and the patient needs to be called back for more bloodwork. It's a pretty critical system.

It's a very complex network of tubes with a couple dozen terminals and these neat sort of carousel things that move a canister from one network to another. Like a switch at a train yard.

They have a way to purge it if something gets stuck, some sort of blower that will flush the system out.

Supporting it feels sort of steampunkish, like this is some technology from another world where people in top hats get around in dirigibles, but it's actually a quite modern system. We're currently in the process of converting all the controller stations from serial to IP.

Does anyone remember Micronauts? Rocket tubes? I dream of one day riding in a human-rated pneumatic tube system.
posted by bondcliff at 6:52 AM on March 4, 2015 [13 favorites]


I'll let Mike know he made Metafilter. He'll be chuffed as this was his first piece for Lapsed Historian (site is mine, as I've mentioned on here before) and he was a bit worried about whether anyone would actually find this an interesting subject.

Eventually he agreed to write it as long as I stopped constantly making weird comments about playing cards with holes punched in them.

If anyone has any questions about the network just post them and I'll ask him over email.
posted by garius at 6:59 AM on March 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


I guess this means that Ted Stevens wasn't totally wrong, then.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:04 AM on March 4, 2015


Link isn't working. Way to go Mefis! This is why we can't have anything nice.
posted by Ber at 7:05 AM on March 4, 2015


What are y'all calling an 'automat'? I've never come across that word before (well, except in German).
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:06 AM on March 4, 2015


I used to love going to the bank's "drive up" teller in the 1970s, which was a teller very far away who would take your deposit via a pneumatic tube and a really clever little plastic capsule. It felt so futuristic to me, but now it seems really steampunk-disco.
posted by xingcat at 7:10 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Link isn't working. Way to go Mefis! This is why we can't have anything nice.

Sorry, that was me - I pre-emptively scaled up the server the site is on ahead of the mefite traffic (and associated traffic from aggregators which scrape/monitor metafilter for new posts). Should only have been down for a fraction of a second. Apologies for that.
posted by garius at 7:11 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here we are in the 21st century reading about a series of tubes built in the 19th century by way of a series of tubes built in the 20th century.
posted by resurrexit at 7:11 AM on March 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


I remember various shops using them as a kid in the 1970s and I'm sure they were used well into the 80s
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:20 AM on March 4, 2015


I used to love going to the bank's "drive up" teller in the 1970s, which was a teller very far away who would take your deposit via a pneumatic tube and a really clever little plastic capsule. It felt so futuristic to me, but now it seems really steampunk-disco.

Here in Indianapolis I can think of at least two branches of the bank I do business with that use this system today. In some cases the tubing is translucent plastic and the carrier travels upward on the way to the teller.
posted by Gelatin at 7:20 AM on March 4, 2015


And now Elon Musk wants to build a big kickass version.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:21 AM on March 4, 2015


Too-Ticky, an Automat was a kind of self-serve restaurant where you would select food on individual plates out of a cabinet by paying with a coin. Kind of like a vending machine, but with a full-service kitchen behind it stocking the food.
posted by msbubbaclees at 7:28 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the big old department stores, either G. Fox or J.C. Penney, I'm not sure which, had a pneumatic tube system that went from the checkouts scattered all over the sales floor to some mysterious place "in back".

They used it heavily. In fact, every checkout transaction seemed to require it. I'm not sure if they kept any cash at the checkouts at all.

You'd walk up to the checkout and the clerk would ring up all your purchases, and then they'd take one of the pneumatic capsules and put the register tape in it, along with however you were paying—if it was by charge card, they'd take the card and do the clunk-CLUNK carbon-copy machine thing first and put the slip in, letting you sign it first; I don't think your card went for a ride—and then they'd send the capsule off and you'd wait for a minute or so. (They'd bag everything up for you while waiting, and make awkward small talk.) Then the capsule would come shooting back down the tube, and it'd have the final payment receipt in it, so that you'd be on your way.

It seemed like The Future, although in retrospect it was sort of a bizarrely equipment- and labor-intensive system for no real benefit that I can see today. Maybe they didn't trust their clerks with cash drawers? Maybe it had something to do with early charge card or check processing? I've no idea. But I would bet that up above the drop-ceilings in a lot of older department stores, or buildings that used to have department stores in them, there are still the remains of those pneumatic tubes.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:29 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm glad they mentioned the pneumatic tube system at NASA's Mission Control Center during the Apollo era. It was a remarkable system, all the tubes connected to an endpoint that could automatically route tubes between them, so you were able to send things between controllers, or to the backrooms for each controller station. If you hit the "Hard Copy Request" button on your station, and it would print out in the computer room, and they'd send the hardcopy to your station via the pneumatic tube system.

Fun stuff.
posted by eriko at 7:31 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


When I was in the Navy, back in the '80s, the frigate I was on had pneumatic messaging, for sending hard copies of secure radio traffic to and from the radio room. We called them "bunny tubes." For all I know, modern warships still have them.
posted by ogooglebar at 7:43 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thanks for that info garius, I'm two for two with accidentally finding mefi's own!
posted by ellieBOA at 7:50 AM on March 4, 2015


Too-Ticky, an Automat was a kind of self-serve restaurant where you would select food on individual plates out of a cabinet by paying with a coin. Kind of like a vending machine, but with a full-service kitchen behind it stocking the food.

Basically, imagine the bastard child of a school cafeteria and a vending machine.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:53 AM on March 4, 2015


msbubbaclees: Kind of like a vending machine, but with a full-service kitchen behind it

Thank you! Ah yes, we do have those here, but just for snacks, not complete meals. Sorry to disappoint.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:54 AM on March 4, 2015


Literally five minutes after I made that last comment I got a page (yes, we still have pneumatic tube systems and pagers here because we work in 1893 and 1993) that the tube system was down in two locations. It looks like it's not my issue, I'm an app/server guy not a network guy, but I still had to get involved and I blame Metafilter.
posted by bondcliff at 7:59 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thoomp!
posted by Kabanos at 8:43 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Steampunk networks.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:25 AM on March 4, 2015


one of the many servers I support at a hospital is a server that controls a pneumatic tube system. . . . These things send blood from the clinics down to the labs 24/7 and run all over two different buildings.

Bondcliff, pneumatic tubes still perform yeoman service at Cleveland Clinic, as well. In fact, construction companies contributing to the metastasis of the Clinic main campus boast of the tube system in describing their pneu buildings:
Cleveland Clinic Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Pavilion -- one million GSF, 10-story cardiovascular hospital, including 278-bed patient rooms . . . 16 operating rooms 21 patient, two MRIs, two PETs, one Cyclotron . . . Pneumatic tube system . . .

The new 138,000-square-foot research facility . . . consists of administrative and laboratory space . . . Activities in the three-story building will provide lab support to the main campus, and it will be connected to various buildings on campus by a series of pneumatic tubes used to quickly carry samples and specimens from one lab to another.

Specimens arrive at the new building three different ways -- zipping across campus through miles of pneumatic tubes. . . .
Somewhat apropos, but less recently . . . .

In the early 1970s, I happened to tour an industrial pmeachine shop located somewhere in East Anglia. I don't remember what they were pmeaking, some kind of pmetal widgets that needed to be turned, faced, cut, burred, sanded, knurled, drilled, flanged, polished, etc. at individual workstations, each one a step in transforming the widget from a pneon-descript block of pmetal to its final useful shape.

There were two pneotable things about this set-up:

1. The parts were moved from station to station through a series of (pneumatic) tubes. I've seen documents and medical specimens moved this way, but this is the only example I've ever seen of a pneumatic tube system moving heavy metal objects in an industrial setting.

b) The computer that pmeonitored and pmeaintained the whole operation was so old -- in 1972 -- that it, too, consisted of a series of (vacuum) tubes. It took up a whole room, a quite pneoisy one, being that keeping several thousand vacuum tubes cool requires quite a few fans. I was told, too, that one technician's sole job was pmeaintenance of the vacuum tubes -- that is to say, detecting and replacing dozens of weakened or burned out tubes every week.

It is possible that this last point was a case of Brit gearheads pulling the young Yank's nerdy leg, but the rest of the story is as true as I can pmeake it.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:34 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I remember pneumatic delivery in drive-through banks in 1970's southern California.

Banks around here (Chicago suburbs) still use pneumatic tubes in the drive-through lanes. I too was fascinated by them as a kid.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:12 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


It is not known how long these government tubes were used after the war, but some may still be in service today, as they are secure, unjammable, and not susceptible to electronic eavesdropping or electro-magnetic interference.

I love the idea that the nearly 100-year-old government-only network (built 1918) may still be in use!
posted by crepesofwrath at 10:49 AM on March 4, 2015


garius, you may want to let your friend know that they've been linked in other places as well (f'ex, I read this last week via the Fug Girls).

We were talking about pneumatic tubes at a work gathering last week (best job) and we decided grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, and hospitals were the only places we'd ever seen them in use. That tracks neatly with what folks are mentioning in this thread, though of course the linked piece also mentions the post office/transit/banks set up. Were pneumatic tubes common anywhere else, I wonder?
posted by librarylis at 11:06 AM on March 4, 2015


It's not hard to imagine such tubes being used for inter-city freight, consumer goods routing, even a personal rapid transit system.

Consider: when the Amazon train hits town, all packages for a particular suburb could be automatically routed trucks. Consider: a monorail consisting of a see-through pipeline which auto-routes your (one- to four-passenger car) to major locations and to a network of local, small last-mile electric-buses. (For example)
posted by Twang at 12:32 PM on March 4, 2015


Costco used to use the pneumatic tubes (in Northern California at least) to move money from the registers to the back. Given the huge volume of sales at Costco, I can imagine it was a security risk to leave the registers full of cash.
posted by wuwei at 4:51 PM on March 4, 2015


why oh why was this article not actually about "pneumatic massaging system"???
posted by rebent at 5:56 PM on March 4, 2015


Oh man, this is embarrassing. I wrote a paper in college, the topic was something something futuristic, and I came up with the idea of PneuTravel.

Jules Verne, 1863.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:39 PM on March 4, 2015


Banks around here (Chicago suburbs) still use pneumatic tubes in the drive-through lanes. I too was fascinated by them as a kid.

For banks, they're a very good fit. Instead of trying to reach out a window holding pieces of paper -- pieces of paper that may be worth hundreds to thousands of dollars, mind you -- and finding them heading downwind, you pull up to the lane, pull the carrier *into* your car, put the paper-that-means-money into the carrier, close it, then put the heavy and not likely to fly downwind carrier into the tube system, which *pshooms* it to the teller. Then they take the receipts, and if you're also making a withdrawl, the pieces of paper that are in fact money into the carrier and *pshooms* it back to you. You grab the carrier, pull the paper out, and drive away, around the bank building, back into the lane, where you sheepishly put the carrier back.

At least, that's how I've seen it work.
posted by eriko at 5:52 AM on March 5, 2015


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