Some months ago, while touring an underground bunker in Berlin, I was treated to a rare sight: a mini-demonstration of Berlin's old pneumatic dispatch system! And that got me thinking... were there other pneumatic mail delivery systems in the world? What could we find out about them? If you're curious too, keep reading!
The story of pneumatic tubes starts with William Murdoch, a Scottish engineer, who invented them in the 19th century. Developed later by the London Pneumatic Despatch Company, these tubes used pressurised air to propel cylindrical containers throughout systems set up in certain buildings or sometimes, entire cities. During the second half of the 19th century, the pneumatic post system was implemented in post offices and telegraph offices of several large cities to quickly deliver letters and telegrams between themselves, banks, stock exchanges, and ministries. This method was found to be much more convenient and quicker than transporting letters in horse-drawn carriages or depending on human messengers.
Control Panel of Prague's Pneumatic Post system
In 1853 the first system was built, linking the London Stock Exchange to the city's main telegraph station; in 1861 it transported mail from the Euston railway station to the General Post Office and Holborn; in 1865 the Rohrpost was developed in Berlin, spanning 400km; in 1866 Paris created their system, a total length of 467km. Other cities like Vienna, Prague, New York City, Munich, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Hamburg, Naples, Rome, Milan, Melbourne, Marseilles, Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago soon followed.
Pneumatic tube at New York's Post Office
Some systems became rather complex and effective, but were eventually surpassed by more modern methods of communication and transport, and were mostly abandoned during the 20th century. The Paris network was in use until 1984, finally replaced by computers and fax machines. One lasting pneumatic post network still exists in the Czech Republic, known as the Old Lady of Czech telecommunications. Prague’s network of tubes extends 55km and was still used for delivering letters and parcels until 2002, when a flood rendered it inoperative. The current owner is gradually repairing and preserving the system, in hopes of using it as an educational experience and tourist attraction. Today, hospitals, banks, nuclear reactors, and some airports still have uses for these systems, and have updated and refined its technological ability.
Check out the blog pneumaticpost.blogspot.com to learn more interesting facts about these tubes and about the subculture of “steampunks” who cherish it so. The blog also features a many tube maps, like this one of Prague.