The public's obsession with pneumatic tubes was undeniable. An ad for Luna Park even boasted a pneumatic tube ride, which would project the rider at speeds up to 3,500 feet per second. This was a prime example that the public's interest in pneumatic tubes was not restricted to it's utility as a mail system.
An article from the Chicago Tribune read 'People passing the vicinity of the corner of Washington and LaSalle streets yesterday might have notice a peculiar mechanical operation going on, and on inquiry would have been told that a 'pneumatic tube' was being constructed...'(Chicago Trubune 0_3) This first person account records what must have been a very odd experience of seeing these tubes actually being installed. This construction and placement of tubes made tangible the conceptual idea of a media network, in a very physical way. Interestingly it is currently popular to create more clean networks, which aren't realized physically, we have adopted wireless networks, in lieu of cumbersome tubes. However, even though they don't manifest them in the same way we are in fact using pneumatic tubes sending breaths of information as we send text messages and emails through our PDAs.
The comic depicting a man in an empty hotel room may be amusing if only for the fact that it depicts inflatable furniture, a technology that was in fact realized later on. (Chicago Daily Tribune 36) What is most important however is that the pneumatic system has found its way not only into a new facet of human life, more particularly the comic, a lens through which to view the world. Also interesting is the fact that all this pneumatic hype has found its way into a very unpneumatic newspaper.
What is probably most captivating about the concept of using pneumatic post to send food, appears in the very last sentence of the article from Modern Mechanix Magazine, 'the fame of German women for tasty cooking may soon pass into obscurity.' (Modern Mechanix 41) Here the idea of what it means to be a German woman is being modified by an adaptation of a media technology. What would German women be if they weren't great cooks? The same question can be applied to mail sent through pneumatic tubes, what will your message mean if it is delivered so far from you and so rapidly, but still in an analog way? Unlike the telegraph, which digitizes messages, the pneumatic letter retains analog meaning, which could range from your handwriting to the type of stationary you use. How do these meanings change when they rush away and are made separate and apart from you at amazing speeds?
On November 10, 1893 The Washington Post declared 'The present era is likely to be known to history as the pneumatic age. What with pneumatic tubes and pneumatic tires pneumatic bells and pneumatic guns...' These are all accurate and categorical list of several inventions all revolving around wind. However, the Post makes a significant jump when it continues '...to say nothing of pneumatic orators in congress, the wind works seem to be coming to the front.' (The Washington Post 4) While the list of pneumatic was clearly intended to point out the pneumatic trend in recent history, the article takes an even more significant leap when it uses pneumatics as a context to describe politicians, an entity completely separate from the technology. Although I can't begin to chronicle history of the saying 'windy speaker' This article makes blatant the way pneumatic technology began to dictate the way people viewed their world.
Today, you cannot walk into a post office and ask to express-mail something using pneumatic tubes. However, this technology has not become completely obsolete. Pneumatic tubes are still in use on an extremely small, localized scale, in many banks and large stores for instance. Old buildings still carry traces of the Victorian era with constructed, yet unused, pneumatic tubes. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were numerous inventions utilizing pneumatic tubes for hospitals. These were created namely for nurses to send specimens, blood samples, prescriptions and chart copies to a floor clerk, who would dispatch them appropriately (Allen).
In 2001, the New York Times published an article entitled 'Underground Mail Road; Modern Plans for All-but-Forgotten Delivery System' by Robin Pogrebin. The Times reported here that a man named Randolph Stark wished to revive the pneumatic tube postal system beneath New York City, unused for nearly a century; clearly, this dream was never realized. What's interesting to note, however, is the language still used around this dead medium, and how it truly is seen as a ghastly, unexplored presence that still lurks beneath our city's streets.
This twenty-first century article also sheds light on why the pneumatic tube mail system stopped: 'The service continued in most cities until 1918, when the high costs of maintenance $17,000 per mile per year were thought to be impractical for the small volume of mail transported' (Pogrebin). Ultimately, the pneumatic tube's impracticalities, limitations, and economic unfeasibility led to its 'death' as a medium, though it still lies dormant underneath city streets worldwide.
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