Pneumatic tube-based postal systems of the late 19th century


57 Responses to “Pneumatic tube-based postal systems of the late 19th century”

  1. Beanolini says:

    There’s a bunch of stuff about pneumatic post (etc) at the Dead Media Project, as well as loads of other fascinating stuff…

  2. Kieran O'Neill says:

    #43: weldpond: Arthropods don’t have tubes. Some would argue that they’re more successful animals than us vertebrates…

    And there are lots of examples of communal organisms (bees, ants, etc) which use a similar agent-based means of transport to our modern society. (Drones individually carry food and other things around under their own power, rather than being pumped through the tubes the way, say, red blood cells are in vertebrates.)

  3. buddy66 says:


    That’s beautiful, true, and thus (Keats?) all we need to know.

    Also kind of disgusting.

  4. Keir says:

    I just want to say Brazil.

  5. Takuan says:

    Breakfast of Champions?

  6. kirakira says:

    I used to visit relatives who worked for Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1980s; the Britannica building in Chicago still had functioning tubes at this time. They also had gorgeous brass & glass mail drops on each floor. That building was my favorite place to mail a letter- or to watch the letters fall from higher floors, disappearing down the glassed-in mail shaft.

    Face it, all tubes are awesome, right down to the ol’ garbage or laundry chute.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Anachronistic? I don’t think so. You guys been to Home Depot lately? Every store has one of these systems for communication between the registers and the office. This was explored pretty extensively back in the 1990s by the Dead Media Project, which is still archived somewhere out there on the interwebs.

  8. padster123 says:

    Someone said it already, but I can’t resist – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil!!!! It’s practically a whole movie about tubes!

  9. Anonymous says:

    The library of congress used to have a pneumatic tube system to send books between the main building and the Annex. BIG tubes with an eliptical cross section so that the carriers could hold books.

  10. Ian70 says:

    #9: in a previous BoingBoing post about an automated boar semen collection system (Collectis), a pneumatic tube delivery system was featured in that system as well.

    You’re very, very welcome.

  11. Takuan says:

    how about an office block with waterslides instead of elevators? Or dry slides (silicone granules maybe?) And you could have paternoster lifts for up.

  12. postalsystems says:

    Tubes are awesome! Imagine if these where still in general use…

    you can’t send a sandwich through regular mail, but with tubes hell yes! (Well you can, but eat at your own risk.)

    Imagine the look on your boss’s face after receiving that special anonymous surprise in their tube after the last awful morning meeting. So many possibilities.

    I wonder if Tim Berners-Lee ever used a tube system.

    Anyways…if anybody is interested in some more modern mailing techniques check out my new blog at

    and remember folks it’s not link spamming when your just trying to spread some relevant content. :)

  13. Anonymous says:

    I think this is a highly underated system that could be used for individual transportation, among so may other things. Lie down and take a nap in Boston – wake up in Florida, while enjoying ameneties such as music,video,nice comfy pillows, temperature control, etc…..) It would be great for package delivery (groceries for example) and it could all be tied in with a computer routing system. Less fuel use and traffic. I have been talking about this for years and my friends thought I was psychotic. I didn’t even know that such large pneumatic systems even existed. Time to be green, maybe it’s time to be pneumatic!!

  14. Anonymous says:

    I read the title with the word “portal” at first.

    Also, insert your own joke about the internet tubes.

  15. moebrook says:

    I worked with a guy who kept his drill bits in one of those brass leather gasketed cylinders, one of the few times I was tempted to steal from a coworker

  16. Anonymous says:

    I saw one of these systems in operation when I was a kid in ’73. A family friend was a reporter in Champaign, Illinois and I saw it in the newspaper’s building. Always wanted to play with it.

  17. Anonymous says:

    When I was a kid in the 50s, a couple of stores had pneumo tubes in my home town. In a nearby town, there was a hardware store that transported sales slips, etc., using a continuously running loop of cable about the diameter of clothesline, travelling around the store via a system of pulleys. My memories of it are dim. I believe there were wire rails near, or a cage surrounding, the cable. Does anyone else remember such a contraption?

  18. Keeper of the Lantern says:

    I’ve heard it said that the one in Budapest Hungary is still operational.

    I’ve also been dying to find out if there were (simple) human versions of routing protocols, in the event that some tubes were out of service or whatever.

  19. Takuan says:

    go to ref #2 link at bottom of wiki article

  20. Kieran O'Neill says:

    Well, since the topic has moved on to pneumatic transportation in general, I give you the atmospheric railway, as financed and implemented in practice by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

    Unfortunately, since this was (only just) pre- vulcanized rubber, they used leather to seal the joints in the tube. The leather had to be kept supple with large amounts of tallow, which in turn provided a tasty meal for the local rats.

    The railway only ran for about a year…

  21. jef says:

    The USS Hornet and other carriers from that era used intertubes.

  22. FoetusNail says:

    Thank you sir, or were you a non-com?

  23. Antinous / Moderator says:

    Tubes are great. We used them in the hospital. Once, a rat squeezed out of one of them.

  24. Oren Beck says:

    Tube delivery systems are one of those Anachronotech concepts that may exist forever in some form. Even in a matter transmitter economy, Identitum protected “Certified Uniques” need to be shipped securely of course.

  25. Takuan says:

    always thought a private one underground across the border would be nice.

  26. Ned613 says:

    One of the benefits of pneumatic systems was you didn’t have to worry about spam.

  27. Bobdotcom says:

    Maybe this was the series of tubes Ted Stevens was thinking about. The time period is about right.

  28. buddy66 says:


    Naughty notes to the girl upstairs making change (if you knew her) were not unknown.

    A friend carried on a successful flirtation via the tubes.

  29. AGuyCalledRune says:

    The next time I come to Berlin I will take a tour of their tube mail. Check out this:

  30. ike says:

    I’ve often thought it would be great to repair these systems (or even install new ones) and then use them for rapid burrito delivery. Then I imagine that the scent of a burrito anywhere would activate memories of the pleasant whoosh-foomp sound of such a tube system in action.

    Also, I feel that this discussion won’t be quite complete without another mention of The Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel. (Which has already been mentioned in comments on other BoingBoing posts, but bears re-linking-to)

  31. Chas44 says:

    A large airline in Denver uses pneumatic tubes to move small parts from the warehouse to the terminal, a distance of over a mile.

  32. Beanolini says:

    #44, Kieran O’ Neill:

    Arthropods don’t have tubes

    They may not have a circulatory system like that in vertebrates, but they do have
    tubes for respiration and (rudimentary) circulation.

  33. stickinsecthunter says:

    Makati Medical Center, one of the most prestigious and largest hospital in Manila, Philippines recently installed a pneumatic tube system.

  34. porkchop says:

    Last year at a doctor’s office, the urine specimen cup I was asked to fill bore the label “Not for use in pneumatic tubes.”

    I kind of wished that I’d been present to witness the event that led to that warning label.

    And sometimes I wonder if anyone’s tried that at a bank drive-thru.

  35. FoetusNail says:

    We are little more than highly complex walking/talking tube. We are a through hole with a few check valves; everything else is ancillary to this through hole and is only there to facilitate its operation and survival.

  36. Ted8305 says:

    #7 Porkchop: That gives a whole new meaning to the term “p-tubes”! NASA mission control in Houston used to use them in the old days for quick notes in the days before email, and they called them exactly that: p-tubes.

  37. nehpetsE says:

    These tubeways were all constructed by squirrels for their own sinister purposes. Mark my words well.

    Someday you all will realize the hideous glory that is “The Squirrel Machine”

    coming later this year from Fantagraphics.

    Not self promotion. but i have seen the original panels of the art for it and it is wondrous.

  38. Kieran O'Neill says:

    #9: Antinous, I now have wonderfully confused images of giant urine samples flying around the tunnels of the London Underground.

  39. Anonymous says:

    Tube sample delivery is ongoing in Hospitals here in Israel.

  40. gwizah says:

    Here’s a great site about the tube system in prague:

    All that aged brass, beautiful lettering, wood, leather…Ahh, it’s like a steampunks wet dream.

  41. minouchet says:

    You probably know it already, and you might have read it, too, but I’ve just finished “Banvard folly” by Paul Collins. There’s a chapter on that pneumatic stuff, but the whole book is just amazing, and very Boing Boing.

  42. Fee says:

    When I was a teenager, the local department store had a pneumatic system. Each transaction had to be put into a tube, including the money for the item, and the change and receipt would come back. I don’t remember becoming enraged about the delay in the way that I would be now (am now, if a website takes a long time to load).

    It seemed a bit Jules Verne steampunky, neither ancient tech nor modern tech but caught in some no man’s land betweeen the two.

    The company struggled to modernise, got bought out and then closed. The building is now a cut-price sports shop, which keeps going bust and reinventing itself.

  43. pjcamp says:

    It’s a series of tubes?

  44. The Unusual Suspect says:

    Some (all?) Costco warehouse stores currently use pneumatic tubes to send excess receipts from the cash desks to the office.

    Hmmn. It wouldn’t be hard to do this at home, using an old central vac system.

    No fun for the hamster though.

  45. aeon says:

    Pneumatic tube systems are perfect for delivering specimens from various ward areas to the labs in large hospital. Google ComCo and PevCo for contemporary systems. Double bagging and padding is a must though…

  46. Salome says:

    AGuyCalledRune–I went on a tour of the rohrpost building a few months ago. It wasn’t as large as I had hoped (there are just a few rooms), but the tour guide was a passionate and quite eccentric character. Unfortunately my german wasn’t really up to the challenge… I lot of what he said flew over my head. He was ranting a lot of the time!

    He did mention that it would be one of the last times they did the tour, because the area is slated to be cleared for redevelopment into a parking garage :(

  47. buddy66 says:

    #12: It seemed a bit Jules Verne steampunky, neither ancient tech nor modern tech but caught in some no man’s land between the two.

    Very steampunky; those canisters were brass, plush-padded at both ends.

  48. okcalvin says:

    #12′s comment reminded me of the system at the J. C. Penney’s in Kansas City (or was it in North KC) that I was fascinated with in the early ’60s. My mom’s would put the charge on her credit account; the impression of her charge plate was made; the tissue copy of the impression sent upstairs to the credit department. Lookup of the account would be made, and credit clerk would pencil in the OK for the sale and zip the whole affair back.

    The Walmart Pharmacy nearest to my folks has a pneumatic system for drive-up service; it sends the paperwork and returns the drugs about 75 yards one-way.

  49. Takuan says:

    people too, imagine that.
    “Engineers J. Latimer Clark and T. W. Rammell formed the Pneumatic Despatch Company, which built a demonstration tube above ground in Battersea in 1861. This line successfully carried loads up to 3 tons… and even a few passengers, lying down in the vehicles in the 30-inch pipe! With the large pipe and small vehicles, a much lower pressure could be used, no more than 0.025 atmosphere. Vehicles ran on a 2-foot gauge track formed right into the tube segments, and speeds up to 40 mph were reached. The Pneumatic Dispatch Railway, as it became known, operated until 1874, but at this point the Post Office decided that the time saving wasn’t worth the cost.”

  50. weldpond says:

    Why have our societal tubes started to form and then quickly atrophied. Animals have tubes: arteries and lymphatic system, and they also have electronic communications: nerves. Modern society has plenty of electronic communications: internet, cable tv, satellites. Why are our most efficient physical transport cars, boats, and planes. We need real tubes. A factory in china should be able to tube me the latest gizmo they built at the speed of a jet using far less energy. If it is big they just need have it assembled by my robot at my end. I await the tube version of IKEAs flat pack. Make it fit in the tube and have a machine assemble it not me. This is the future.


  51. ClownX says:

    I’ve always been perplexed at the ones at the bank. If one has a rigid tube with no room to bend back and forth, how can it turn?

  52. FoetusNail says:

    Before learning of these pneumatic systems, I heard one could send a letter in the morning and receive a reply that afternoon. This always seemed amazing until I finally learned the reason.

    BTW, that 0.025 atm acting on a 30 inch dia. surface amounts to 260 lbs. of force. I miss helping design and build pneumatic systems, getting the timing and velocity right requires patience. When a machine is finally operating at speed, the rhythmic sound produced by the air whooshing in and out of the various components and exhausts is quite satisfying. Each machine makes its own music.

  53. FoetusNail says:

    Minouchet, thanks for the tip, added Banvard’s Folly to our wish list.

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