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Pneumatic tubes at a typewriter factory, circa 1954.
Pneumatic tubes at a typewriter factory, circa 1954.
Getty Images

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The golden era of the pneumatic tube — when it carried fast food, people, and cats

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

You can still see pneumatic tubes at bank drive-thrus and a few other places, but their scope used to be a lot more ambitious than carrying deposit slips.

For decades, these tubes — which use compressed air or a vacuum to move all sorts of capsules — carried weird and wonderful things. And, in a way, the things they carried tell the story of the tubes themselves, which went from fantastic innovation to mostly antiquated oddity.

The tube began by moving people

An Austrian engineer's 1863 vision for pneumatic transport.
A pneumatic tube demonstration in 1867.

Concepts for pneumatic tubes in the 1860s imagined them as people movers. The 1867 tube, seen at right, was demonstrated in New York City.

Beach's pneumatic railroad would have been a step forward for the tube.

A drawing of Beach's pneumatic railroad, ready to ride. (Getty Images)

From the beginning, people imagined that pneumatic tubes might carry people. As early as 1812, one writer proposed sending people on a train driven by "the power and velocity of air."

These attempts were primarily proofs of concept or sideshow attractions, but they were often audacious. For example, Alfred Ely Beach built a block-long pneumatic transit system in New York City. The demonstration actually sold 400,000 rides during its first year of operation.

He hoped for wider adoption, but the system was shut down in 1873. Moving people was impractical over long distances. Packages, however, made more sense.

The mail used pneumatic tubes to carry everything from goldfish to cats

Yes, a cat was sent through a pneumatic tube. It was for its own good.

Scientific American/Internet Archive

Yes, a cat was sent through a pneumatic tube. It was for its own good. This photograph shows a tube in operation in 1897. (Label by Vox/ Photo by Scientific American/Internet Archive)

The New York mail system made use of the pneumatic tube.

The New York mail system made use of the pneumatic tube, as shown in this 1897 drawing. (Scientific American/Internet Archive)

The New York Post Office was one of many to adopt the pneumatic tube for limited use, as did other cities in the US and Europe.

The North Philadelphia system showed off its system by sending a cat and an aquarium through it, as well as eggs, china, and hot tea. A rabbit hopped in a tube as well.

Once, even a sick cat was sent through the tubes to a veterinarian (when he emerged, he jumped out of the canister and ran away as fast as possible).

But as truck delivery improved, the tubes began to be seen as impractical (as early as 1914, one contractor called to "kill the tubes"). Though tube adoption by the USPS had plateaued, their popularity paved the way for use in individual buildings.

Pneumatic tubes enter the glorious world of inter-office mail

Pneumatic tubes at Sears

Pneumatic tubes at American Airlines
Pneumatic tubes at The Plaza

Pneumatic tubes at Sears in the 1900s, American Airlines in 1945, and the Plaza hotel in 1941. (Interim Archives/Michael Ochs Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the mid-20th century, pneumatic tubes carried mail in offices around the country, providing the speed of email in an age before the internet — or even the fax machine — existed.

Unfortunately, these systems were only practical at larger scales (which may be why some larger hospitals still use them today to speedily send lab specimens and test results).

Even NASA Mission Control used tubes during the Apollo era

NASA's pneumatic tubes can be seen in this picture

NASA used pneumatic tubes to move messages quickly. You can see the canisters in the picture above. (NASA)

But as inter-office communication became easier, the pneumatic tube entered its novelty period.

The tube became an artifact for carrying Big Macs

The great pneumatic cheeseburger. (Ben Frantz Dale)

The McDonald's in Edina, Minnesota, had a very unusual drive-thru. It used pneumatic tubes to send people extremely salty food. But its closure in 2011 showed that no tube was safe.

What's the future for the novel pneumatic tube?

It's possible to look at the pneumatic tube's story as one of long decline: Its ambitions began as a revolutionary people mover, were reduced to mail, got stuck in the office, and ended up, at best, a way to avoid talking to a bank teller.

But there's still hope for the compressed air fan, from the far-out concept of Foodtubes (capsules of food, shot underground) to the far-out concept of the Hyperloop (which proposes speedy transit underneath California in a reduced-pressure tube). People can also hope for even more unusual uses like pneumatic beer delivery.

The pneumatic tube was always meant to hold more than bank teller slips — at its best, it's contained a world of possibilities.


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