Long before the advent of email, there was another ‘series of tubes’ that could transport mail and small items very quickly. This system was used, primarily, in office buildings but was also employed inside of cities. Pneumatic tube systems were employed as early as 1853 in London. The London Stock Exchange was linked, via pneumatic tube, to the main telegraph station, a distance of 220 yards in 1853. Most of the systems employed were for mail, currency or other small items, but the notion of using the technology to move people was always at the forefront.
In 1812, George Medhurst proposed blowing passenger vehicles through a tunnel. His idea never came to fruition, but it is the earliest known idea using the technology. One of the earliest, functional, true pneumatic transport system was built in England in 1861. The Pneumatic Dispatch Company built a system that was intended for cargo, but the Duke of Buckingham and some members of the company board of directors travelled to the Euston station, a five minute ride.
In the United States, development of a people transport was underway in New York in 1869. The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company built a block long subway utilizing pneumatics. It operated briefly but was unable to sustain itself because the company was denied permission to fully develop it past the one block. Nothing remains of the Beach line today and even its importance is in dispute. In fact, the article about the line on the New York Subway website dismisses the line as a ‘mere curiosity.’
The oldest surviving system, for mail, is the Prague pneumatic post. Begun in 1889, the system remained in use until it was partially destroyed in 2002 by floods. It is being restored but the effort was slowed due to funding issues.
While things like automobiles, airplanes, email and the internet have pretty much negated the need for pneumatic technology, the technology can still be found. Most commonly at bank drive troughs. Those little capsules that you put your money in or get it out of in the drive through lanes uses pneumatic tubes. You may also still see it in some department or large warehouse style stores. Some high rise buildings still have operational tube systems that are in use. Many others have them, but they are either not in use or are no longer functional. Hospitals still employ them, though not as much as they used to.
Pneumatics were also the stuff of fiction. Jules Verne often employed them in his stories. In all of the stories, from Verne and others, the tubes were everywhere. It was the technology of the future.
It’s always interesting to look back on a ‘hot’ technology that, while used for well over a century, never really seemed to live up to its potential. Even though it was never fully realized as a human transportation system, it did manage to see widespread use and is instantly recognized by people the world over. It’s system of tubes can be, even today, found in any city in banks and many other places. Senator Stevens would be proud.