A Series of Tubes

Roman Mars: This is the record-breaking Kickstarter Funded season 3 of 99% Invisible. Give yourself a round of applause.

Roman: I’m Roman Mars.

Male voice 1: Pneumatic.

Male voice 2: Pneu-ma-tique.

Male voice 1: Pneumatic.

Male voice 3: Pneumatic tubes: Of or pertaining to air, gases, or wind.

Male voice 4: Oh good you’re here. Donny, we found some tubes in the wall and now we’re trying to see where the tubes go. You see, things go away and they never come back. How the heck does it work? I guess we’ll never know! [Laughter] Vacuum!


Male voice 4: Yeah, right, vacuum. Let ‘er rip! [laughter]

[Pneumatic machine sound]

Roman: In the world before telephone and email, the task of transmitting information and moving material objects was essentially the same challenge. The way you send someone a message was pretty much the same process as sending someone a package. You had to send a piece of physical media through the post or on a ship. It was the telegraph that divided telling someone something from giving someone something. But remember, everyday people didn’t speak Morse code so the message had to be deciphered, written on a slip of paper and then it was delivered to the recipient.

Male voice 2: Pneu-ma-tique.

Roman: Even though you can probably guess already that electronic communication eventually killed most of the need for pneumatic tubes, you may not know that it was the telegraph itself that also put pneumatic tubes into widespread use.

Molly Wright Steenson: As telegrams blew up and the cost dropped and the volume rose, it became very difficult to quickly deliver them to their destinations. And so, what they needed to do was come up with another way to get messages across the city quickly.

Roman: So if you can’t send something with that newfangled electricity stuff, you have to figure out a way to do it old school. Sending a message as a physical object.

Molly: It’s the last mile problem. Getting to an end customer or an end recipient can be the more difficult problem, and they came up with the Post Pneumatique or the pneumatic post as a means of doing that.

Roman: That is Molly Wright Steenson, researcher, Ph.D. student, and aficionada of all things pneumatic tube.

Molly: Pneumatic tubes are systems of subterranean, urban, postal services that delivered messages underneath cities all across the world in major financial centers.

Roman: Those were the large-scale implementations. But later on, there were a number of smaller pneumatic tube systems more familiar to people today. Our producer, Sam Greenspan spoke with Molly through a different series of tubes.

[Music playing]

Sam Greenspan: So it turns out Molly and I had similar experiences with pneumatic tubes growing up.

Molly: When I was a kid, we used to go to the bank down the street and–

Sam: I remember going to the bank with my Dad. We go to the drive through and he put his deposit slip or whatever inside this plastic canister….

Molly: My mom would unroll her window and she gets the canister from this big air making device and she put in whatever checks she wanted to deposit.

Sam: And then I would see it shoot up–

Molly: Sucked up through this clear tube–

Sam: –through this clear tube.

Molly: –and it would shoot across to the bank. And then the ladies in the bank–

Sam: The tellers might put in some candy or a matchbox car.

Molly: –lollipops for me and my brothers and dog biscuits for the dog.

Sam: And send it over with my Dad’s receipt.

Molly: –back by the pneumatic tube. And it just seems–

Sam: — just seem really cool!

Molly: Seemed kinda magic.

Sam: Seemed kinda magic.

Roman: And they also harken back to another era. You may only know about pneumatic tubes in the context of a bank drive-through. But when they were invented, they really set the stage for what communication would look like over the next century.

Molly: The pneumatic post first started in London in 1853 but the technology transferred very quickly to other cities: Vienna, Marseilles, Munich, Milan, Berlin, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, Buenos Aires, Australia. In fact, there were pneumatic post systems in every major financial city on every continent with the exception of Antartica.

Roman: Antartica is always slacking!

Sam: But nowhere were pneumatic tubes more extensive than in Paris. At the end of the 19th century, Baron Haussmann had totally redone Paris’ urban layout, putting in those big iconic boulevards and circular plazas. And, he also put in sewers.

Molly: So, not only did the sewer carry potable water and eventually electrical cables, but it carried pneumatic tubes.

Roman: And these tubes inside of tubes were a hit. By 1919, Paris was processing 12 million pieces of pneumatic post a year. And by 1945, there were 450 kilometers of pneumatic tubing lining Paris’ underground, making it possible to get a handwritten note across Paris in less than two hours without even breaking a sweat.

Sam: Here’s how it works: You write something on some special stationery, enclose it in a special envelope, pay special postage and you get it to your local tubist.

Molly: That’s what you call one of the people who sends pneumatic post.

Sam: Tubist put the envelope in a canister. And let me tell you about these canisters. At first, they just look like soup cans. But over time, they became more aerodynamic and began to resemble little rockets. Anyway, the tubist rings an electric bell to alert the tubist on the receiving end that there’s an incoming cannister and then “thump.” It’s hurdling through Paris’ underbelly so fast that the sending tubist could actually hear the canister arriving at its destination.

Molly: The descriptions that I’ve read from the 19th century, talked about the shock, the noise of the shock of the pneumatic post arriving. The only mechanism that can provide enough force would be steam. And so, there were gigantic steam engines underneath the Hotel De Poste which was the central post office in Paris, and they would produce the compressed and rarified air that would serve to push or pull the pneumatic tubes through all of the kilometers and miles and miles of tubes that were underneath the streets. There were also even buildings that just simply existed to produce air for the tube services.

Roman: The biggest pneumatic tube systems had problems that required some creative troubleshooting.

Molly: Paris had an interesting mechanism in case there is a blockage, someone would fire a gun into the tube and then measure the sound waves and be able to figure out to within, I guess, two meters or so, where the blockage was. And then, they would be able to go underground and undo the flange and bring out the offending cannister. I guess it’s better than what happened in Berlin where they just poured copious amounts of wine into the tubes in order to unfreeze the stuck canisters.

Roman: As exciting as all this sounds, electric communication evolved.

Sam: In Europe, other technologies like telephone and telefax improved and got way cheaper.

Roman: And solved the last mile problem. There was another form of physical transport that put the nail in the coffin.

Molly: The thing that put them out of business in the United States was the invention of the truck. The truck was invented in 1912 and that’s kind of what did it.

Roman: Trucks are fine and all but they just don’t capture the imagination like a massive pneumatic tube network as silly as such a thing might seem today.

Sam: Molly and I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what exactly it is about the tubes that leads us to be fascinated with them.

Molly: I have a couple of theories about why pneumatic tubes are magic. I think they inspire wonder because they’re alive, or it feels like they’re alive. They’re reaching out through the city. They have tendrils and tentacles, and they breathe and they throw things up, and they feel much, much bigger than we are. I also think they inspire wonder because they manifest communication. You know, for us today, when we think of communication all the 1s and 0s and digital things that we move don’t feel real tangible to us anymore. But I also think that they felt pretty magical to people back then too, that they were kind of electrical and breathing connections of communication. You could scent a handkerchief and send it to your lover via pneumatic tube and it would still smell like you. So, I mean, I think they were romantic as well, and I think that that’s part of the wonder today, too.

Sam: So, in a sense, they’re both alive and mechanical. Both high and low tech. There’s also something to be said about the journey of a tube cannister that you can imagine it snaking its way through these underground passageways, carrying your message.

Molly: And so, this idea of being able to go somewhere where you wouldn’t otherwise be able to go, is amazing. That tube passage has made that entire underworld journey in order to surface in the hands of its recipient.

Roman: More than their widespread use, what might be the most surprising thing about pneumatic tube systems is how long they stayed in use.

Sam: The Post Pneumatique operated in Paris until as late as 1964. Tubes even ran over the Brooklyn bridge until 1953. And it took a force of nature to knock them out of Prague. That city was using them until a flood in 2002. But get this: Lots of places still use pneumatic tubes.

Molly: Hospitals use pneumatic tube systems, and that’s because you really can’t digitize tissue or medication. And so, the next time you find yourself in a hospital, take a look because you’ll find them by the nurse’s stations and in the emergency room. They are also used at places at grocery stores or big electronic stores, usually that kind of delivery of all of the money through pneumatic tubes so that it’s not anywhere where the store could get robbed.

Sam: When Molly was doing research on tubes at the New York City Public Library, she found that her request was being dispatched via pneumatic tube. But there’s one other tube system in New York that moves a lot more material.

Molly: In Roosevelt Island, pneumatic tubes are used for garbage.

Sam: Roosevelt Island, if you don’t know, is a small island in the east river between Manhattan and Queens in New York. And as it happens, my friend, Hannah Jamal grew up there.

[Phone rings]

Hannah: Hey.

Sam: Hey Hannah. How’s it going?

Hannah: Good. It’s nice to hear from you.

Sam: So I called up Hannah and asked her about the pneumatic tubes in her hometown.

Hannah: I get flustered when people ask me about the garbage tubes because to me, how you take out your trash on Roosevelt Island is not the most fascinating thing about it.

Roman: Yes, I’m sure that there are thousands of fascinating facts about Roosevelt Island, but let’s hear about those garbage tubes!

Sam: Yes, so Roosevelt Island is only about three miles long and about 800 feet wide.

Roman: And when the island was being developed for residential living in the 1960s, planners determined that the quality of life would be better without big garbage trucks on the roads. I know, right?

Sam: So, instead, they dispatched with their trash with the pneumatic tube network.

Hannah: And I have one friend, in particular, he’s my friend David, and he can tell you more about how it works.

Sam: So I asked Brooklyn-based producer, Mooj Zadie.

Mooj Zadie: Hey.

Sam: — to go meet Hannah’s friend.

David Kimball-Stanley: Oh hey. How’s it going, Mooj? Nice to meet you.

[Background conversation]

Sam: A guy named David Kimball-Stanley.

David: My name is David Kimball-Stanley and I live on Roosevelt Island. Just tell me when you want to start talking about the trash because there isn’t that much about to say about it.

Mooj: Let’s just start finding about out all this. Here. Okay.

David: The beginning of the process is I guess the same as what most people deal with.

Hannah: It’s just like taking out the trash. You take your trash bags and then–

David: Just take out a plastic bag and we tie it up, and then we go outside. Here, come with me.

Hannah: You walk out into the hallway.

David: Move out into the hallway.

Hannah: And on each floor, there’s a room which is called the AVAC room.

David: And I lived in Roosevelt Island my whole life. It’s the same thing in, at least all the original buildings. I imagine it’s the same in the newer buildings. Basically, every floor has a trash room. Ours is right next to the stairwell. You open it up and there’s not a lot in it. It’s–

Hannah: It’s just this tiny little closet-like space–

David: And there’s a place for recyclables. The stuff that isn’t recyclables, just put in this big chute.

Hannah: Where there’s this little handle that you pull and you pull open the door and throw your garbage down the chute and that’s it.

David: And then that’s it. [Chuckles]

Hannah: To be honest, like it wasn’t until after I left Roosevelt Island that I realized that other people don’t have AVAC rooms, and that’s not the system that’s used.

Sam: I try to remember precisely when I learned about it, and I think it might have been on Wikipedia. I like double checked that I knew what pneumatic meant. [chuckles] I was like, “Oh, it just sucks the trash. That’s amazing.” And I just– well, in my day– [chuckles]

Roman: In fairness, the tubes might have made a bigger impression if Hannah and David had to put their trash bag in a rocket ship, shaped cannister and fire it across the island. But there’s still something about a visit to Roosevelt Island that makes you feel like you’re on the cusp of the future. Even though you’re clearly not.

Sam: Hey Molly, can I try a theory?

Molly: Sure.

Sam: Okay. If you think about all the technology we were promised the future would hold, from something like Star Trek. A lot of it has come true, right? Like we have touch screen computers. We have hand communicators. But one of the things that we don’t have and will probably never have is the transporter. You know, a thing that can disassemble something somewhere and reassemble it somewhere else. And I wonder if that has to do with why the tubes feel both so ancient and so futuristic at the same time. Like, it’s the closest that we ever got to transmitting a physical object instantaneously.

Molly: I think that’s possible. I think that’s definitely possible that you could get something instantly or that… it’s again, that you could communicate instantly that you could not only get it, but you could have that feeling, and that sensation or that information right away. It’s the nexus of those two things.

Roman: But it’s more than just information. The scented handkerchief that arrives after traveling through miles of Paris underground or even the dog biscuit from the bank teller. These are romantic because they have physical intimacy.

Molly: I mean, maybe that’s why we keep coming back to it. And maybe that’s why steampunk seems important in a digital age. That actually, we do need physical things and we never did get our jetpacks, but we do care all the more about things that are real and tangible that come to us and I think what the pneumatic post represents to us and what pneumatic tubes represent to us, is the possibility that that could happen.


Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars with help from Mohd Zaidi. It’s a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Support for 99% Invisible comes in part from the Facebook Design team, who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at Facebook.com/design.

Support is also provided by Tiny Letter, email for people with something to say. My boy, Mazlo, always has something to say. What do you have to say, Mazlo?

Mazlo: My favorite thing right now is Halloween stuff and I like pumpkin, skeleton, zombies, skulls. Halloween. Halloween. Halloween. Halloween. Bye-bye. I love Halloween.

Roman: Seriously, by mid-August, there are Halloween decorations and skeletons up in my house. The boy can’t get enough of it. Tinyletter.com, the simplest way to send an email newsletter. From the people behind MailChimp. We are distributed by PRX, the public radio exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at PRX.org.

Comments (9)


  1. Wetdog

    Totally off topic but i am essentially listening to all these pod casts backward so its strange to hear Maslow’s voice get younger and younger…its like he is aging backward…

  2. twsobey

    Did something change with your CMS? The YouTube links don’t seem to be embedding properly.

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