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

Molly Steenson gives us a glimpse of her forthcoming thesis on "postal services and pneumatic tube systems in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially in Paris" -- the original, fascinating series of tubes:
Fueling communication through pipes that ran under cities at speeds of up to 50 km per hour, the pneumatic post served as an urban subterranean communication network from the 1850s into the early 21st century, first in Europe, then the United States, and by the early 20th century, South America and Australia. Depending on the city, pneumatic tubes shuttled telegrams or letters and packages, both commercial and personal, as an antidote to increasing urban congestion and traffic on the streets above. Messages delivered by pneumatic dispatch surfaced in post offices and train stations, where messengers carried them by bicycle (or later, motorcycle or truck) from the post or telegraph branch to their final destinations. For commercial buildings, pneumatic tubes offered ready communication systems between and within any enterprises that required the movement of receipts and paper. At once buried and tangled, emerging into the interiors of buildings and offering varied interfaces for its users, the pneumatic tube presents an enigmatic image of modernity--the merger of construction and communication.

Pneumatic networks preceded electrification, first powered by steam and only by electricity in the early 20th century. They enjoyed a long lifespan. Implemented first in London in 1853 as an information conduit between the London Stock Exchange and the Central Post Office, the technology quickly transferred to other cities. Berlin began its Rohrpost in 1865; Paris built its first pneumatic networks in 1866 and began public Poste Pneumatique in 1879; Philadelphia followed suit for first class post in 1893 and New York in 1897. Urban tube networks existed for a surprisingly long time, remaining in operation until 1953 in New York, 1984 in Paris and 2002 in Prague (where it was only taken out of service by a flood that destroyed much of the tube infrastructure).

Postal services and pneumatic tubes (via Beyond the Beyond)

Update: Molly adds, "the image you used is actually from the Hotel des Postes in Paris and has nothing to do with tubes. It was used for processing mail -- in order to get the mail to the basement without causing the postal sacks to explode, the architect, Julien Guadet, designed the chutes you see in that picture. The center of the chutes is an elevator, used to move the post for sorting. I'll post more about that soon."


  1. 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.

  2. 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)

  3. 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.

  4. #9: Antinous, I now have wonderfully confused images of giant urine samples flying around the tunnels of the London Underground.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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…

  8. 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 :(

  9. #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.

  10. 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.”

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. #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.

  14. 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

  15. #26,

    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.

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

  17. #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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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…

  25. #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.

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

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

  28. 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.


  29. #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.)

  30. 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.

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

  32. 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.

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

    Also, insert your own joke about the internet tubes.

  34. 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. :)

  35. 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?

  36. 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!!

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