Breathing buildings and scented handkerchiefs

Pneumatic tube array at Marshall Fields in Chicago.

Thanks to chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress-dot-com

When Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens described modern communication systems as “a series of tubes” he was partly right. Just 100 years too late.

Before the invention of phones and fax machines, people in cities sent messages through a huge system of underground tubes filled with compressed air. You can see them today in large grocery stores, warehouse stores like Costco or hospitals where they’re still very much in use. But in the late 19th Century, every financial center on every continent had networks of steam-driven, air-powered tubes running throughout the city. And Paris’s was the largest and most intricate.

You’d write your note or letter and take it to your local tubiste, who would place it in a little metal canister that looked something like a miniature rocket ship. He’d insert the canister into a tube, and it would magically shoot off under the city streets. Then he’d push a button to signal the destination tubiste that a delivery was about to arrive. Within moments, your note or letter would land with a solid clunk miles away. Steampunk teleportation!

You might send a contract, a payment — or even a small object like a scented handkerchief to your lover across town. Très romantique!

Pneumatic tubes are the topic of the first show of the new season of 99% Invisible, one of the best audio experiences you can treat your ears to. Producer and host Roman Mars has managed to create a series of short journeys into an array of design- and architecture-related subjects that are fascinating and inspiring.

To learn more, check out the newest episode, plus cool videos and notes here — or subscribe in iTunes and listen all of these amazing shows. They’re like beautiful little objects delivered straight to your brain via pneumatic tube.

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2 thoughts on “Breathing buildings and scented handkerchiefs

  1. Interestingly, the Paris network of pneumatic tubes reached its apex in 1934, with the highest volume of transmission happening in 1945. The service, run by the postal service, didn’t close till 1984! The system served as a faster adjunct to regular postal deliveries, with people sometimes dropping a piece of mail in a mail box for pneumatic delivery, while the final delivery was often performed by a squad of young bicycle messengers, *les facteurs tubistes*. And apparently Prague still uses pneumatic tubes…

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