The Cash Railway Website
November 19, 2019 6:44 PM   Subscribe

 
I have posted about this on the blue before, but I worked from roughly 1998 to 2006 in a wwII era chemical plant in eastern ontario that used a pneumatic tube system to send samples and other ephemera around the plant (and in one occasion on the backshift, a human turd).
posted by hearthpig at 7:00 PM on November 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


I clicked around a bit but didn't find an answer to my question: what was the change in technology or business practices that made these systems obsolete?

My initial theory was that cash registers killed them, but cash registers and these cash railway systems seem to have appeared in retail at about the same time. Or were early cash registers more expensive than cash railways, and they replaced cash railways as they became more affordable?
posted by Triplanetary at 7:10 PM on November 19, 2019


triplanetary I would have to guess they are a lot more maintenance and material intensive than cash registers?
posted by hearthpig at 7:20 PM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


but cash registers and these cash railway systems seem to have appeared in retail at about the same time.

perhaps this is actually the answer; it wasn't immediately clear which system was better and people were sold on cash railways over cash registers for some time because they were cool and maybe the railway makers had some exceptionally good sales people?
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:20 PM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


I assume somebody ran the numbers and realized that a person could just walk a packet of cash between locations more reliably and less expensively than goldbergian contraptions. That’s how we did it when I worked at The Bay, could just be that Canada was never cool enough for steampunk currency delivery systems, though.
posted by rodlymight at 7:21 PM on November 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


Maybe these systems made sense because owners didn't trust their clerks? And it's far easier to balance a single till at the end of the day than five or ten of them.
posted by lhauser at 7:29 PM on November 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


rodlymight we had a large clothing store in downtown Kitchener called "Budds" that ran pneumatic cash control, it closed less than 5 years ago I believe.
posted by hearthpig at 7:30 PM on November 19, 2019


As usual, Atlas Obscura has the answers.
posted by hippybear at 7:36 PM on November 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


There is an old bank building right near the ferry terminal in Vineyard Haven that has left over pneumatic systems, including at the drive up. It is for sale for several million bucks. I want to open a steakhouse in there but I don't have the capital. It is more of a compound, everything stone or brick on the outside and a controversial roof issue. Whoever gets it I hope they preserve the tubes.
posted by vrakatar at 9:14 PM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


> My initial theory was that cash registers killed them, but cash registers and these cash railway systems seem to have appeared in retail at about the same time. Or were early cash registers more expensive than cash railways, and they replaced cash railways as they became more affordable?

The same advances in precision manufacture and mass production was what allowed both to be invented, so they came about at the same time. But I'd guess registers were for smaller stores, railways and pneumatic tubes were for larger stores.

There are a couple advantages to the railways and tubes system in the machine age. First and probably most importantly, all the money was immediately consolidated in a safe location out of reach (and out of view) from customers. Take a look at the photo at the Atlas Obscura page inside the cashier's space; it's the size of a small meeting room heavily fenced in with pointed wrought iron. Robbers only had access to a couple customers' money at a time; getting the day's revenue meant attacking a secured room. Second, it decoupled the promotion and transaction parts of retail -- the sales floor could be staffed with people who were good at selling products, and those people could handle more customers at a time because the people who were good at math were going to process the payments and handle the sales records. Cash registers of the late 1800s weren't the calculators-with-a-drawer you think of today, they were mechanical adding machines with a drawer and journal that couldn't handle complex purchases or sales larger than its physical limit of, say, $999.99.

Ultimately I'd guess electricity was what made cash registers win out over railways and tubes. Electronic systems made not only cash registers cheaper and more sophisticated (less need for cashiers who were good at math), but maybe more significantly electronics made security systems cheaper and more sophisticated, so there was less danger in holding onto money on the sales floor. Large-scale cash-and-carry sales systems only became popular in the 1950s and wasn't really possible without sophisticated cash registers. Before cash-and-carry, all merchandise (other than display items) were out of reach of customers to make shoplifting more difficult but meant greater labor costs since it required the store to have sales clerks plus somebody to fetch the merchandise. Cash-and-carry, where the showroom is also the storeroom and customers bring their own merchandise to the front of the store, simultaneously minimized the need for sales clerks (customers could inspect the goods themselves) and runners (customers carried their own goods) and cash delivery mechanisms. The checkout line is also effectively the exit gate where customers are inspected before leaving, to minimize shoplifting.

And eventually cashless payment systems -- checks, credit lines and credit networks -- helped make a centralized cashier's room kind of pointless. Thieves can't do a hell of a lot with a till of credit card receipts.
posted by ardgedee at 3:13 AM on November 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


> There is an old bank building right near the ferry terminal in Vineyard Haven that has left over pneumatic systems, including at the drive up. It is for sale for several million bucks. I want to open a steakhouse in there but I don't have the capital.

...would the steak go in the tubes?
posted by Old Kentucky Shark at 4:21 AM on November 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


My local IKEA has a pneumatic cash tube. I guess because a large proportion of transactions are credit card so it doesn't make sense for each individual register to have cash, but they still need to deal with when someone wants to pay £750 in fifties.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 4:23 AM on November 20, 2019


I think pneumatic tubes are still relatively common (but pretty subtle) in UK supermarkets. I've definitely seen them being discreetly used in the past few years.
posted by ambrosen at 5:19 AM on November 20, 2019


There's a magnificent Lamson cash ball system at the Up-To-Date Store, which I'm glad to see is covered by this website.
posted by zamboni at 5:27 AM on November 20, 2019


When I was kid, there was a shoe store downtown (Stouts) that had a wire basket system. It was very captivating to watch the baskets flying back and forth across the store overhead.

Every old department store and bank downtown had pneumatic tube systems back then, too. Today, you only see them at bank drive-throughs.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:34 AM on November 20, 2019


This linked picture looks like all the tubes of capitalism pointed right at you.
posted by clawsoon at 5:38 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


There is an old bank building right near the ferry terminal in Vineyard Haven that has left over pneumatic systems, including at the drive up. It is for sale for several million bucks. I want to open a steakhouse in there but I don't have the capital.

...would the steak go in the tubes?
I would invest a moderate amount in the place if they included hot dogs—I am not really a steak person—but mostly for the obvious naming possibility.

There might be certain engineering difficulties involving topping dislodgement to be overcome, though. But, ad astra frankfurterus, as they say.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:08 AM on November 20, 2019


Our local bank had pneumatic tubes for deposits and cash withdrawals, and it was the MOST FUN THING EVER to be the kid in the car chosen by Mom to put the check/cash into the drawer and watch it WHOOSH away.
posted by xingcat at 6:08 AM on November 20, 2019


By the way, super interesting site. I knew I had something actual to say but I forgot it in my hot dog haze.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:09 AM on November 20, 2019


what was the change in technology or business practices that made these systems obsolete?

...used a pneumatic tube system to send samples and other ephemera around the plant (and in one occasion on the backshift, a human turd)

Well, there is your answer right there.
posted by waving at 7:02 AM on November 20, 2019


Lamson - amazingly, still in business - sound like an aggressive defender of their patents and managed to win a 5 year non-compete against an employee.

This is a lovely site, not just for its detail (in court cases, you'll read about champerty and maintenance). I remember the pneumatic tubes in Paisleys (even they were unsure of where the apostrophe went, if anywhere) on Jamaica Street in Glasgow. They've been gone 40 years now.
posted by scruss at 7:07 AM on November 20, 2019


I know that up into the late 90s and maybe even into the 2000s, my mother's bank in the Boston area had a drive up system that used a pneumatic tube. You could send in your checks and deposit slips and maybe even make a withdrawl. I think she even sent a roll of quarters through once. I don't know if they still have it, I just remember that the speaker was so lousy I thought it would have been easier to just go inside.

On the other hand, there is a certain coolness factor with pneumatic systems that is a shame to not have.
posted by Hactar at 7:24 AM on November 20, 2019


I have a friend who repeatedly played the same prank, with the same shaggy dog story, and fooled people into believing that the parking meters were connected to the basement of city hall via pneumatic tubes.

Over the years and the repetition, this pneumatic system grew in complexity. She would describe the vacuum shutoffs to prevent the system losing pressure (or sucking small dogs in) when a truck hit a parking meter and snapped the post, the room in the basement of city hall where the change fell into sorting hoppers, etc. Prior victims would join enthusiastically in pranking the new person, solemnly agreeing with whatever she said, claiming to have seen it in action, contributing new details of their own.

It was a sad day when our city installed a system where you put your credit card in a central kiosk, instead of putting change in a meter.
posted by elizilla at 7:59 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


elizilla that's fine, doubtless the same system was readily adapted to sucking up and collecting all the electrons and binary bits.
posted by hearthpig at 8:03 AM on November 20, 2019


It's been a couple years since I've been to the store but BH Photo & Video in New York has a conveyor system that goes throughout the store to move items from display counters to the cashiers near the exit. Here's a great video showing a product's-eye-view of the system that starts at floor level and then travels above customers' heads all over the building. Shopping there, you can catch glimpses of baskets whizzing by overhead on their way out the door.

As for central cashier systems, in both Russia and China in the last decade I've been in stores where you go to one display counter or shopping area, choose your items, and then get a receipt. Then you need to go to a different section of the store to show your receipt to the cashier and then give them the money. Then you get a proof of payment and return to the first section where your item was, give them your proof of payment, and then get your item.

In cases like a huge department store with a separate department every 50 feet or so, it made sense to centralize the money operation in a way that could improve security for everyone involved. There were usually one or two cashiers on each floor, though I remember a fabric mall in Nanjing that only had one cashier for multiple floors of fabric merchants. I don't know how the system has changed in the WeChat mobile payment era.

In some small Russian grocery stores, especially outside the major cities, I remember trying to buy a loaf of bread and then being told to move about 4 feet down the counter to give my money to another clerk there, and then having to move 4 feet back to get my item. It felt like a holdover from Soviet times when they needed to make up jobs so everyone had something to do.
posted by msbrauer at 8:47 AM on November 20, 2019 [2 favorites]




There's a café in Christchurch called C1 Espresso that occupies a former post office. They roast coffee in what used to be a vault, and you can order sliders or curly fries and have them delivered to your table via pneumatic tube.
posted by dashdotdot dash at 11:48 AM on November 20, 2019


This is not at all what I was expecting. Neat!

I've never encountered separate sales and cashier stations in stores except when traveling in Mexico and Russia. I always assumed it was based on manager's distrust of employees, and it seemed like a truly shitty and wasteful choice. I'm intrigued to see that it existed in the UK and US as well.

The supermarket I shopped at as a young kid had a pneumatic tube mechanism that they used only for paper checks. But, I find that choice incomprehensible. Why would it possibly matter where a check sat until the end of the day?
posted by eotvos at 1:00 PM on November 20, 2019


In 2000, there was still a functioning pneumatic tube at the drive-through ATM at the (I think it was a) Bank of America in Dodge City, Kansas.
posted by porpoise at 4:25 PM on November 20, 2019


...would the steak go in the tubes?

Probably not, but maybe wine bottles. There was a bar in NYC that did something like that with beer.
posted by vrakatar at 5:44 PM on November 20, 2019


porpoise, There's a pneumatic tube at just about every bank drive through I have even been to. There's one a half-block from my house.

I've been to Dodge City, Kansas, more recently than 2000. But I never looked for a bank drive-thru.

Are they disappearing in other parts of the country, even though the car centrism continues?
posted by elizilla at 10:58 AM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


As a Canadian, I had never seen one before, much less a drive through bank.
posted by porpoise at 6:27 PM on November 21, 2019


The Australian Parliament used, until a few years ago, a system like this called the Telelift. I never noticed the name before but it's made by Lamson.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 4:17 PM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


Hospitals still have tube systems! They’re used to send drugs from the pharmacy and samples to the lab. Samples including, on one memorable occasion, an entire spleen. Which did not cope as well with the trip as say, a blood sample, which is why you aren’t supposed to send that kind of sample through the tube system. I didn’t see the aftermath myself, but as I understand it it wasn’t pretty.
posted by MadamM at 3:19 PM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Depending on how large the acceleration the container was put under...

Vials of blood - possibly sediment into a chunk of red blood cells at the bottom of a column of plasma. nbd, it can be resuspended.

A spleen. Very much depends on the acceleration forces, but I could imagine the leading end to be grey, gradient-ing into yellow and then red, then deep burgundy sitting in a bed of compacted red blood cells in a pool of lymph.

Assuming it was fresh, and the acceleration forces not sufficient to simply smush it completely.
posted by porpoise at 8:09 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


possibly sediment into a chunk of red blood cells at the bottom of a column of plasma
Sending it around the building twice sounds like more fun than a centrifuge. I'm glad my workplace doesn't have such a thing. I'd abuse it constantly for silly art projects every day.

I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I spent several hours on Roosevelt Island and completely failed to talk my way into visiting any part of their Pneumatic trash system. The coffee shop employees were very nice, but didn't seem to know what I was talking about. The apartment buildings were a ghost town. Everything else was closed and most of it boarded up. Perhaps planning ahead by more than 15 minutes would have helped.
posted by eotvos at 10:44 AM on December 18, 2019


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