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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.

Prague's Pneumatic Post system

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

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.

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20 comments so far

Vagabond_Trader, United States of America
Ha seems so futuristic actually! Tube transpiration now that would be an interesting way to get around "in human sized tubes" of course lol!
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Pertinacious, Russia
Great article! Thanks a lot. I saw a Pneumatic System being used in a huge modern supermarket in Russia last summer: cashiers put a pile of banknotes into the container which is being transported from the checkout right to the office. =)
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Nordbaer, Germany
Great!!! I worked with those pneumatic systems in the Seventies, in Germany they are called "Rohrpost".
In the house where my optician has his store they still have two tubes between the store and the upper repair laboratory.
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mse-home, Germany
At my workplace we still use a "Rohrpost"
it is still fun and kind of fascinating
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Luziaceleste, Brazil
very interesting!
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tulipan7, Croatia
When I was a kid one existed in the main post office of my birth town of Osijek (Croatia) and was used to send telegraphs from the counter to...well, somewhere...
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CatharinaG3, Netherlands
Awesome article, very interesting!
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moonlessnite, Canada
Cool article...this system was still used in some hospitals in British Coumbia, CANADA for sending lab specimens, etc.
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aliya44, Uzbekistan
this system is used in Russian State Library as well...
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marivan, Belgium
I work in a modern newly built hospital in Belgium and we use pneumatic tubes to send samples, letters,...
anything that fits in the tube really.
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hulottati, Germany
Thank you for this article! I have in my collection a Rohrpost-cover, sent 24-1-1908 (see my avatar).
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devc, Portugal
I saw this kind of "pneumatic post" in two places:

1. at Mercadona supermarket in Barcelona, Spain. They use it to send money (notes) from the cashiers to the office.
2. at IPO, an oncology hospital in Porto, Portugal. They use it to send samples to the laboratories.
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theseawithin, Canada
The Home Depot in Canada has them. The cashiers use them to send up money or get more if they need it.
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rosenbusch, Germany
an interesting story... Thank you for sharing!
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Attie, Germany
Something similuar you can see in Lemmi und die Schmöker, an old german children series. But it was magic....http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZM67bZXeUM
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infernova, Spain
It seems cool, you learn new things every day:)
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MiniP, Japan
I used to work in a shop which had one of these. It was used for money and paperwork. One day one of the tubes got stuck which wasn't a problem until we realised that the keys to the shop were in the tube!!!
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liesbeth_france, France
The C&A store (clothes) in Alkmaar Netherlands, used this system. There was no money in the store itself. What you had to pay left in a tube and came back in the tube with your check and your change.As a child I wondered what this mysterious place, where the tubes went, would look like.
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LyndaC, Canada
In Canada the hospitals use a similar pneumatic system. I just worked on one that opened last fall. I believe it is for sending and receiving lab reports and anything you can fit in the tube.
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Rivallien, Czech Republic
Wow! I live in the Czech Republic and I've been to Prague several times, but I didn't know, that we have something like this.
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