It's Really Just a Series of Tubes

Molly Wright Steenson hit the Ignite jackpot at Etech this year with her explanation of the steam powered network of pneumatic tubes of the 1800s. If you’re someone that, like me, has a somewhat obsessive relationship with Internet Infrastructure, you must watch this talk.

tags: , , , , , , , ,
  • Martin Haeberli

    I emailed Molly the comment a few weeks ago – very cool talk. Just one quibble of explanation – using (the noise from) a gun and its echoes to find where the fault is is more like time domain reflectometry than like error correction. No answer from Molly yet.

  • Am I alone in wanting to bring something like this back?

    -Grocery delivery

    A magnetic version w/ electronic switching would seem to offer a lot of potential efficiencies at the right scale.

  • @Martin Haeberli – You’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, most people don’t know what TDR is, and explaining it in the context of an Ignite Talk is probably too difficult.

    “Troubleshooting” seems like a better description than “Error Correction” ;-)

    -Jesse Robbins

  • Are there any bank teller drive-through booths still using pneumatic tube messaging systems? They were commonplace back in the 1970s. More LAN than WAN but still kinda neat.

    For that matter: are there still any big office buildings in, say, NYC, that use them? There must be some holdouts somewhere, no?


  • @Chris: People in pneumatic tubes… The Futurama opening sequence comes to mind. :-)

  • Mumblix Grumph

    They still use the pneumatic systems out here in Washington State. I use them both at banks and drive-through pharmacies like Walgreens.

  • Tom Johnson

    Yes, some of our banks in Santa Fe, NM use these tubes at the drive-up windows.

  • I think the point here is that they were interconnected in metro areas and beyond. An internet for things.

  • Jesse,

    Sure, we get that. I was just thinking about situations where people still alive could get some more visceral sense of the system than seeing it in old movies and such.

    I thought the brief hints about the “routing system” given in that very dense 5 minute talk were pretty fascinating. She talked about some key inventions that made it happen and, in retrospect, maybe it’s funny she didn’t use the word “Cisco” (in an analogy).

    You know (some) people talked a lot, back then, about building wider diameter pneumatic networks to carry a different kind of packet: humans. The futurama reference above has some historical basis! The humans were, of course, presumed to be enclosed in a capsule, unlike the cartoon version.

    Hey, you know: maybe instead of wind turbines alone there is some way to capture wind power to trickle-charge big vats of compressed air or to evacuate suction vats. Hmm….. :-)


  • Also, from the peanut gallery:

    That talk was very nicely prepared and choreographed. The animated slides took, pardon me, but “balls” and she really had worked out her routine so that she was very comfortable with the enforced “pace” of 15-second changes. Poetry in motion.

    It’s a mistake to read too much into reasoning by analogy – it’s literally pre-enlightenment pseudo-rationality from medieval times – but appreciated with that in mind, I think she raised the bar more than a little on “best of” Ignite talks.


  • Anyone interested in this (and this sort of thing) should absolutely read Tom Standage’s “The Victorian Internet” ( It’s a quick read but a fantastic one.

    Also, Thomas: there’s a pharmacy near our house that’s in a converted bank building and they still use a pneumatic tube at the drive-through prescription window. Sometimes I think I go there for my medicine just so I can use the tube.

  • Jim Stogdill

    I never realized Orwell’s inspiration for the “memory hole” came from real infrastructure!