What we saw when we sent a cell phone through a pneumatic tube system

Pneumatic tube systems — little canisters shot through a series of tubes via the power of compressed air — have been around since the 19th century when they were briefly popular as a way to quickly deliver mail in big cities. Today, they're probably most familiar from their use in drive-through banking, but the tubes also turn up at libraries (the one at the main branch of the New York Public Library is particularly steampunky), in scientific laboratories, and in hospitals.

Last month, I spent an inordinate amount of time in one Minneapolis area hospital, waiting for an induced labor to kick in. How do you entertain yourself between the insertion of the IV line and the beginning of serious contractions? Turns out, you go on a lot of short walks, you watch some TV, and (if you're lucky) you convince the nurses to let your husband "mail" his cell phone from the labor/delivery department to the post-natal department, using the hospital's pneumatic tube system.

To make it work, we turned on both the cell phone's flashlight app and its video camera, and secured it inside the plastic cylinder with a couple of pieces of egg-crate style packing foam. The video is vertical, rather than the preferred horizontal, because that's how we were able to get the camera closest to the side of the cylinder.

While I can report that pneumatic tube systems are not full of tiny, helpful elves, we still captured some pretty nifty footage. My favorite part was the realization that the system has junctions — points where the cylinder has to briefly stop in order to allow other traffic to pass by. Also cool: It sounds like a little rocket launch.

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  1. The library of congress used to have a series of (pneumatic) tubes big enough to send books between the buildings, as well as a much smaller ones for sending the requests to pull those books from the (closed) stacks. When I worked there in the 80s the large tubes had been replaced by a computerized conveyer system, but the small tubes were still in operation.

  2. So, the internet really is a series of tubes...

  3. This is a frivolous distraction from the REAL purpose of these tubes. . . which is to send babies from the delivery room to the post natal department.

  4. My favorite use of pneumatic tubes was at the Resi nightclub in Berlin in the 1920s, where tables were fitted out with in house phones so you could ring and flirt with people at other tables, and then chose gifts - ranging from sweets to diamond rings - to send by pneumatic tube to the table of your choice.


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