The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Pneumatic Tube Day *

* (Restored)


‘Pneumatic tubes are systems that propel cylindrical containers through a network of tubes by compressed air or by partial vacuum. They are used for transporting solid objects, as opposed to conventional pipelines, which transport fluids. Pneumatic tube networks gained acceptance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for offices that needed to transport small, urgent packages (such as mail or money) over relatively short distances (within a building, or, at most within a city). Some installations grew to great complexity, but were mostly superseded.

‘Pneumatic capsule transportation was invented by William Murdoch. It was considered little more than a novelty until the invention of the capsule in 1836. The Victorians were the first to use capsule pipelines to transmit telegraph messages, or telegrams, to nearby buildings from telegraph stations. While they are commonly used for small parcels and documents – including as cash carriers at banks or supermarkets – they were originally proposed in the early 19th century for transport of heavy freight. It was once envisaged that networks of these massive tubes might be used to transport people.

‘The failure of pneumatic tubes to live up to their potential as envisaged in previous centuries has placed them in the company of flying cars and dirigibles as ripe for ironic retro-futurism. The 1960s cartoon series The Jetsons featured pneumatic tubes that people could step into and be sucked up and swiftly spat out at their destination. In the animated television series Futurama, set in the 31st century, large pneumatic tubes are used in cities for transporting people, whilst smaller ones are used to transport mail. The tubes in Futurama are also used to depict the endless confusion of bureaucracy: an immense network of pneumatic tubes connects all offices in New New York City to the “Central Bureaucracy”, with all the capsules being deposited directly into a huge pile in the main filing room, with no sorting or organization.’ — collaged




We shot a camera through a pneumatic tube system, just to see what was inside.




‘The world of tomorrow we are creating for ourselves and our children will be one of traffic congestion, pollution, and an ever-dimmishing natural world being covered in asphalt. We need to change our transportation policies — we all know this — but the question is: in what way? Pneumatic tubes transporting people via individual pods, operating on Internet based protocols is, as has been shown, the best solution. The Inteli-Tube system will give people their freedom and space; reduce pollution, both chemical and noise; end costly, stressful, and unproductive traffic jams; increase safety; decrease dependence on foreign oil; and, most importantly, usher in the future that technology has been promising us.’ — collaged






‘Petit Bleu is referred to on page 437 of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (Remembrance of Things Past) as a pneumatic tube used to carry express messages in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. Proust used these frequently for his most urgent notes to friends and acquaintances. In the novel, when the young Narrator meets “the lady in pink,” who, he later learns, is Odette de Crécy, she is captivated by his gallantry and suggests that he send her a ‘bleu’ in order to make a date to come for tea.’ — collaged




‘George Medhurst was born in Shoreham, Kent, England, in 1759. He manufactured scales from premises in Denmark Street in London, however, also invented uses for compressed air in his spare time. In 1810 Medhurst published a pamphlet, in which he proposed the use air for conveying letters and goods. He stated that “the pressure required will nearly agree with the square of the velocity”, and hence, he believed, speeds of 100 or even 1000 miles per hour (mph) could be achieved. In 1812 Medhurst mused on the possibility that such a system might be used for the transport of passengers, but was concerned that passengers might not take kindly to be transported within tubes. He sought to develop a means by which passengers could be moved outside of the tube, but by some form of pneumatic propulsion.

‘John Vallance, of Brighton, England, took out a patent based on ideas contained within Medhurst’s 1812 pamphlet. The extent to which Vallance was aware of Medhurst’s work is unclear. Vallance built a prototype at his home in Brighton. The system had a diameter of 8 feet, and was 150 feet long, with a pair of rails laid inside the tube upon which a capsule ran. The capsule, with 20 passengers was propelled through the tube at a speed of 2 mph. Unfortunately retardation of the capsule was achieved by opening the door to the passenger compartment, which made for an unpleasant experience for passengers, and the system soon ridiculed as ‘Vallance’s Suffocation Scheme’.’ — collaged





‘Until it closed in early 2011, a McDonald’s in Edina, Minnesota claimed to be the “World’s Only Pneumatic Air Drive-Thru”. The Drive Thru was only connected to the restaurant by a Pneumatic air chamber (like a bigger version of a bank teller tube). So if you ordered from the Drive-Thru, they sent your food out through the Pneumatic air system to the small booth that you pulled up to.’ — collaged




‘In a bank’s daily operations, the transfer of documents and other items in various volumes and sizes is a common practice. Most of these documents are confidential in nature which is why the means of transporting them must be both efficient and safe. Doing drive thru transactions is no exception, which is why Drive Thru Tubes in banking are very much in demand. There are several types of Bank Drive Thru Tubes that banks can use.

‘Side-opening bank drive thru tubes: This type allows users to load or unload items from the sides of the tubes. The size of Side-opening bank drive thru tubes used will depend on the requirements of the bank. End-opening bank drive thru tubes: With end-opening bank drive thru tubes, the openings are located at either ends of the tubes. Using this type would depend on the preference and needs of the bank’s personnel.

‘Box bank drive thru tubes: This is the least common type used in a Banking Drive Thru Tube System. It is in box form and comes in various sizes and can be fitted according to the carriers to be used. The reason why it is the least used compared to the previous two types is that most users see the box type as outdated.

‘Banks can design the system that they wish to install according to their specifications to perfectly match their needs. Manufacturers of these systems also provide their banking customers the option to alter or expand them later on if the need arises. Use our Interactive Selection Guide to help you find the model numbers you need.’ — collaged



The Shadow (1994) – Pneumatic Mail Tube System Scene




‘The Tubes Pneumatique, or the Pneumatic Mail Service, of Paris dated as far back as 1867. The first tubes connected the Bourse and the Grand Hotel beginning what would become an enormous system several hundred miles in tubes. Like the system used in America, the tube is filled with compressed air in a partial vacuum. Instead of using air pumps or any engines, the Parisian system worked using power from the city’s reservoir. Originally there were three large connected iron plated vessels that could hold 1,200 gallons each. The first vessel was filled with water, which was pushed into the other two vessels, which were filled with air. The air becomes compressed and once a valve was opened the air escaped rushing with force into the tubes.



‘Until 1898 when private cards and envelopes were admitted, the use of the official postal stationery was obligatory for pneumatic mail. The decree which opened the tubes to the public was signed on 25 January 1879 by MacMahon in the last days of his presidency and came into effect on 1 May 1879. It prescribed two franked forms: one, open, at 50 centimes, and one, closed, at 75 centimes, in modern parlance respectively a card and a letter-card although the latter was on thin paper. The height of pneumatic post in Paris was in the 1930’s where a letter, which the French called a “pneu” could get anywhere in the city in less than two hours. 240 miles of tubing created the net like system that laid just underneath Paris, carrying letter at an average speed of 40 m.p.h. After World War II the system was expanded and modernized but eventually began to decline and the Parisian pneumatic postal system ended in 1984.’ — collaged


The underground pneumatic post of Paris from Truffaut’s 1969 film Baiser Voles aka. Stolen Kisses.



Pneumatic Diversity Vent




‘Jeff Highsmith realized that with the vast increase in world population over the past few centuries, the Tooth Fairy must be increasingly pressed for time. So he built a pneumatic tube system that delivers his son’s teeth from their home to the Tooth Fairy’s house.’ — collaged







‘Like the airship, Concorde and the hovercraft, the pneumatic pipe looked to be one of those also-ran technologies which promised much but eventually faded away, to be replaced by something less glamorous, more mundane but economically more viable. Pneumatic networks were ripped out, to be replaced by courier firms. Plans to abolish Germany’s kitchens in the 1930s and replace them with a food delivery system based on pneumatic tubes, with ready-prepared meals delivered to the Hausfrau from some Nazi version of a Brake Brothers factory, proved a casualty of war. There are signs, however, that pneumatic technology may yet have its day. A tycoon called Elon Musk is planning to use a pneumatic system to slay three old technologies at once – the conventional railway, the motorway and the short-haul flight.



‘Musk, a South African-born entrepreneur-engineer now based in California, is said to be the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s take on Iron Man. Unlike his fellow billionaires such as Bill Gates and Sergey Brin, Musk is unusual because he makes stuff as well as software. He first invented PayPal, then founded the SpaceX private rocket company (he says he wants to retire to Mars) and the Tesla electric car firm. Last week, to much fanfare, he unveiled a new way to move people around. The solar-powered “Hyperloop” will cover the 400 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 30 minutes, traveling at 900mph. Passengers will step into small-ish pods (it seems transport systems of the future must always involve pods) that will then be moved into a tube containing a near-vacuum. Propulsion would come from linear-magnetic-induction motors built into a pair of rails in the floor, with the pods floating on a cushion of compressed air jetted out through skis on their bases.



‘The Hyperloop is thus a mixture of maglev train and pneumatic railway (the concept is a modified version of the “vactrain” – using evacuated tunnels as low-resistance conduits for ultra-high-speed trains). Sceptics point to potential problems: compressing air makes it hot, and some way must be found to dissipate this heat. Buying the land on which to erect the “tracks” – which will be on pylons above street level – will also, they say, cost a lot more than Musk thinks. If the Hyperloop does get built, it will be a case of back to the future. In the 1930s, there was what American science historian Holly Kruse calls a “utopian discourse about the pneumatic subway”. It was not just the Nazis with their ready meals – people dreamt, among other things, of building submarine tunnels across the Atlantic to carry people from New York to Britain in a matter of hours.’ — collaged





‘In Lost, the Pearl station had a pneumatic tube system. In the Pearl Orientation video, Mark Wickmund (a.k.a. Pierre Chang) instructed that the pneumatic tube was to be used to transport data collection notebooks back to “us”. Prior to watching the video, Locke put his drawing of the blast door map in the tube without a capsule. It was sucked up into the tube, showing that it was still working. (“?”) The tube from the Pearl led to the capsule dump, a dumping ground for capsules. The dump was the destination of all the capsules or items sent through the pneumatic tube located in the Pearl, including Locke’s copy of the blast door map. The capsules contained logbooks written by the inhabitants of the Pearl. It appeared that the capsules had not been recently collected or studied (or may never have been collected). This may be because no one was left to collect them following the Purge (“The Man Behind the Curtain”) or because the real purpose of the Pearl was not to keep these logbooks. The goal of the experiment and the reasons for its long duration (evidenced by the number of capsules at the dump) have not been explained. (“Live Together, Die Alone, Part 1”) Because the capsules appeared in piles, it could be concluded that there may have been more stations that had similar pneumatic tubes leading to the same place, but the exits no longer remained. It could also be assumed that this was the only way the producers could get that many capsules to stay in one place and not roll down the hill.’ — collaged




Very impressed by Kevin Clague’s pneumatic creations, I wanted to build some nice pneumatic sequencer gizmo. Unfortunately my pneumatic collection is more restricted than Kevin’s, but with a little thinking I came up with this pneumatic actuated wheel that uses just 6 pistons and 6 switches (many Kevin’s designs use LOTS of pneumatic switches…). The principle is simple: A piston is pressurized and contract. This contraction causes an arm to pull out the wheel. This arm pushes on ground and make the wheel tilt and advance. It also flips the pneumatic switch that controls the contraction of the next piston and expansion of the previous one. Construction details.




‘A vactrain (or vacuum tube train) is a proposed, as-yet-unbuilt design for future high-speed railroad transportation. It is a maglev line run through evacuated (air-less) or partly evacuated tubes or tunnels. The lack of air resistance could permit vactrains to use little power and to move at extremely high speeds, up to 4000–5000 mph (6400–8000 km/h, 2 km/s), or 5–6 times the speed of sound (Mach 1) at standard conditions. Though the technology is currently being investigated for development of regional networks, advocates have suggested establishing vactrains for transcontinental routes to form a global network.

‘Vactrain tunnels could permit very rapid intercontinental travel. Vactrains could use gravity to assist their acceleration. If such trains went as fast as predicted, the trip between Beijing and New York would take less than 2 hours, supplanting aircraft as the world’s fastest mode of public transportation. Travel through evacuated tubes allows supersonic speed without the penalty of sonic boom found with supersonic aircraft. The trains could operate faster than Mach 1 without noise. Researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University in China are developing (in 2010) a vactrain to reach speeds of 1,000 km/h (620 mph). They say the technology can be put into operation in 10 years.’ — collaged





Pneumatic Post is a place to file notes about the life of pneumatic tube systems (particularly in hospitals) alongside other postal, medical and museum related discoveries. Pneumatic tube systems are systems of pipes used to transport solid objects by vacuum. Once resplendent in European and American cities, they are now mostly used in hospitals, banks, pharmacies and other networked institutions. I would love to hear your comments, on the blog or by email: a.harris@ maastrichtuniversity.nl’. — collaged






p.s. Hey. I’m far away in Cherbourg today doing location work for Zac’s and my film, and I will see you back here tomorrow. Until then, kindly indulge yourselves via pneumatic tubes.


  1. It’s always been my lottery dream to build a house with a pneumatic tube system. And secret passages and rooms. And dumb waiters.
    Sorry. Overshared.
    I can’t wait to see what becomes of this hyperloop thing.

  2. Hi!

    Damn, I’m a bit jealous, haha! It’s a real pain in the ass to get foreign language books here – I mostly have to order everything and I never have enough money, blahblahblah.
    I’m sorry about the custom-made piñata(s). And I’m also sorry about the TV series stuff. It’d be high time to hear some actual news and information on that front!

    How did the auditions go? How was Cherbourg?

    Here, everything’s okay. I’ve been thinking about starting a literary journal (or something like that, I think we’ve already talked about this) and I decided to finally give birth to it. I have this tendency that I want everything to be absolutely perfect and “complete” before I put it out there but I’m realizing it’s not gonna work like that. I think I just have to start it and see what happens. I’m just about to meet a friend now but if I get home in time, I’ll start setting up the webpage for the journal! I’m so excited!

    I hope you had a worthy and fruitful trip and everything’s lovely on your end!!

  3. Dennis,

    pneumatic tubes were used to great effect in Terry Gilliam’s wonderful film ‘Brazil.’ You are in Cherbourg? Did you take your Umbrella? 😉

    I meant to ask you the other day, is the Nathaniel Mackey book you recently featured part of a series, or is it a stand alone? It sounded very interesting. I hope everything is going well with the film!


  4. How is the filmmaking process going?

    I was able to get my doctor’s appointment moved up 2 weeks, from April 18th to April 6th. I’m trying to keep my mind occupied with subjects other than drugs and withdrawal, but it’s really hard. At least I’m seeing the new Kore-eda Hirokazu later this afternoon and writing a review, and on Thursday and I have to write another review and then prepare interview questions for the director.

    Here’s a link to my interview with KARL MARX CITY directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker: https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/surveilled-threat

  5. “The internet is a series of pneumatic t…”

    “Do not even finish that fucking sentence.”


    “You are banished to meme prison forever, away with you.”

    *Clutches tube bars within cell of tube prison, made entirely out of tubes.*

    Love pneumatic tunes, btw. I remember them from banks back in the day. I didn’t know they were used so much elsewhere, as well. There’s a kind of old-school sci-fi feel to them (most obviously evident in The Jetsons, I suppose). It’s always interesting to see past futurist predictions (“One day, we will cross the globe using TUBES!”) But in a way, this did come to pass, because, after all, the internet is a series of…

    *A great whooshing sound as punishment bots shoot down the tubes, towards my cell*

    “Mario? Mario, is that you, have you come to rescue me?…”

  6. Love these photos of friendly folk having pneumatic tube fun. Wow, what people used to do before social media came along.

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