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


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 When I worked there in the 80s the large tubes had been replaced by a computerized conveyer system, but the small tubes were still in operation.

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So, the internet really is a series of tubes…


You should check the Seidenstrasse Project - https://events.ccc.de/congress/2013/wiki/index.php?title=Projects:SeidenStrasse - that will be installed at 30C3 in Hamburg at the end of December, and that will connect various sites on the Congress.

Here is a video of a camera inside a capsule : http://vimeo.com/58703548

I started breathing a little rapidly on those pauses. Claustrophobia sucks.

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this is my kind of idea and sound.

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I’m guessing that the pauses are a compression artifact. When there is so little change from frame to frame the compression algorithm regards them as identical.

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I especially liked the “See you on the other side!” That only increased my envy of the cell phone. I’ve wanted to ride in a pneumatic tube since I was watching The Jetsons.


AWESOME. Plus, I’m expecting in two weeks and I know the hospital has a pneumatic tube between at least a few departments (ER and radiology). New time-killing idea!

I’ve always wondered how those don’t spread airborne pathogens everywhere in the building. Lots of filters or something, I hope.

Pretty cool. I never expected the stops. Then again, my only experience with pneumatic tubes was in a couple of downtown department stores my mom would go to when I was a little kid (this would be in the 60’s) The ceilings were covered with dedicated tubes that ran from individual stations up to the billing department. There weren’t junctions.

I maintained the systems that Home Depot uses for a few months back in the 90’s… they use them to send cash between the registers and the safe at the back of the store.

The tubes sure seem cool when they work but I easily could have made it a full time job driving up and down the interstate responding to calls about stuck canisters. The junction boxes they used were notorious for not aligning holes with enough precision to allow the payload to pass through. Depending which junction box had the jam, it could shut down anywhere from two registers to the entire store (which, for me as the responder, was a “drop everything and go fix it now” scenario).

Not a task for those afraid of heights… the tubes run along the ceiling which meant I had to clip into a forklift and get raised all the way up there.


The Ben Franklin store in my hometown (in the 60s) had ziplines between the registers and the (somewhat elevated) office windows at the back. Clerks would clip bundles of paper to them, and they’d sail up and away. If all that was still there, it’d be cool to do something similar, assuming the phone’s not too heavy and all.


Back it up! GO BACK! I think I saw Jimmy Hoffa!


My grandfather was the maintenance foreman for a large-ish city hospital. When I was a kid, I used to get to visit him on the mechanical floor and he’d occasionally take my on calls or just tours of the physical plant. The rear wall of his office was a window facing the indicator and control panels for the chiller units and electrical systems. Huge system schematic dotted with red/green lights behind jewel lenses with heavy toggle switches throughout. I thought he had the most awesome job in the universe.

One day, I got to go down to the central transfer unit room for the pneumatic system. More modern systems use a rotating cylinder or similar arrangement in compact units that are distributed throughout the campus. This one had three huge transfer units that every container fed into. They came in one end and onto a conveyor belt, where a hydraulic actuator would move an arm that’d sweep the canister into the correct outbound tube. They were set up to cascade from one sorter to another if the transfer unit the canister entered wasn’t the right one to route it to its destination. Really cool electromechanical stuff for an eight-year-old.


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.


Pneumatic tubes are still in pretty wide use in Finland. At large stores they send large bills and excess cash straight from the registers to the deposit room through them. At pharmacies, they deliver your prescriptions straight from the storage room to the pharmacist desks (especially when the storage room is on a different floor than the pharmacist desks). My daughter is fascinated by them every time she sees them in action.

I’ll add an obligatory reference to 99% Invisible, which had an excellent podcast on the history of pneumatic tubes. It is just full of people who love the idea of stuff getting sucked around cities in tubes. https://soundcloud.com/roman-mars/61-a-series-of-tubes


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.



In the movie ‘Beeltejuice’, in the waiting room of the dead, they used on of those. Only time I ever saw one but the context implied they were one fairly common.