While the internet has indeed made the transport of data and information as quick as quick can be, mankind has been interested in transporting physical items quickly for a long time now.
Today’s younger generations might not even be familiar with the pneumatic tube system – an intricate network of tubes that allow the transport of items with the power of air and negative pressure.
How Do Pneumatic Tubes Work?
As a result of relatively old technology, pneumatic tube systems rely on rudimentary principles. In perspective, the concepts used in pneumatic tube systems are no different than the ones used when a person sucks up their soda through a straw.
The components of a pneumatic tube system like that of Washington Security Products are very simple. First and foremost, the system requires a network of tubes. The main driver of the pneumatic tube system is air and air pressure which means that it’s not enough to simply put an item inside the tube. The item to be transported has to be placed inside a carrier – a cylindrical contained that fits snug inside the tube.
The tube system also requires ports where carriers are inserted and removed from the system – these are stations. Lastly, air is moved by blowers. Depending on the design, blowers are often tasked to suck air out of the tube system, thus creating a negative pressure that would also suck the carrier to move.
The Pneumatic Tube Journey in the Last Century
The pneumatic tube system has actually been around for quite some time now – and the concept for it even longer.
It was back in 1799 when inventor George Medhurst proposed the idea of transporting goods, and even people, using the power of air pressure through tubes.
One of the earliest iterations of the pneumatic tube system was installed between the London Stock Exchange and the Electric Telegraph Company in the 1850s. The network of tubes between the two companies allowed the Electric Telegraph Company to acquire information regarding stock prices that they can pass on over to the telegraph wires.
This system was considered to be highly effective, especially compared to the alternative which was to have runners carry messages between the two buildings. This system was later followed by other local stock exchanges in the surrounding areas such as Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester.
In 1859, the London Pneumatic Despatch Company was formed to design, install, and operate pneumatic tube systems to carry mail and parcels across London. Operating between 1863 and 1874, this system used wheel capsules that could carry 13 bags of mail in a single trip.
Given the reliance of people today on the internet, it comes to no surprise that pneumatic tube systems were very popular back then for postal services. Paris had an extensive pneumatic tube system that covered 427 kilometers of distance. Originally operated since 1866, the Paris pneumatic post was operational until the network was closed in 1984.
It wasn’t until 1893 when the pneumatic tube system was first implemented in North America. Established first in Philadelphia by Postmaster General John Wanamaker, the technology soon spread to other post offices in the US such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and St. Louis.
These pneumatic tube systems were operated and maintained by the United States Post Office Department until 1953.
Small scale pneumatic tube systems were also implemented in office buildings to facilitate the transport of information from one room to the next with speed. Even for a department as technologically advanced as the NASA mission control room, pneumatic tube carriers can be seen in a famous picture of the room during the Apollo 13 mission.
Aside from goods and parcels, the pneumatic tube concept was always considered for passenger commute as well. Different inventors theorized that the system could be used to transport people.
One such utilization of the concept would be atmospheric railways. These are railway vehicles that would be propelled across a track using the power of air pressure. Although several concept iterations were proposed and prototyped, all were eventually overcome by different disadvantages and problems.
Pneumatic Tube Systems Today
Although in steady decline, pneumatic tube systems are still present in the modern day. With companies specializing in pneumatic tube system solutions, several modern industries still effectively use these networks of tubes.
For efficiency, warehouses and distribution facilities use pneumatic tube systems to improve their productivity and workload. Casinos and banks use pneumatic tube systems to safely transport money without having to worry too much about theft. Hospitals even use pneumatic tube systems to quickly and safely transport specimen samples that need to be processed as soon as possible.
The use of pneumatic tube systems can only be limited by people’s imagination. A McDonald’s in Edina, Minnesota utilized a pneumatic tube system for their drive-thru. While the fast food branch was located in a strip mall location, their pneumatic system allowed food to be delivered to the parking lot.
Perhaps the most recent advancement in pneumatic tube history is the announcement of the Hyperloop, a proposed mode of passenger transportation. Publicly announced by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the Hyperloop is essentially a marriage of two technologies: the pneumatic tube system and magnetic levitation (“maglev”).
Despite the efficiency of the pneumatic tube system, energy is always lost because of the friction between the carrier and the tubes. Making the passenger carrier levitate on tracks, friction is removed to allow the proposed concept of the Hyperloop to efficiently travel at high speeds.
Many factors have been attributed to the decline of the use of pneumatic tube systems and its development. Some say that the advent of roads and vehicles made it more expensive and difficult to install and maintain tube systems across large geographic areas. Despite the age of this technology, there seems to be hope for its revival. Many modern industries still use them today, and the concept of a system to deliver physical goods in a short time is still one that is being dreamed of today.