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The pneumatic tube's strange 150-year journey

Many of us know pneumatic tubes from the bank drive-thru — but they have a surprisingly long history. As the above video shows, they've been carrying people, mail, and even cats for more than 150 years.

Since 1812 people have batted around the idea for pneumatic transport, and it was actually put into practice. The most famous experiments are probably New York's, where a pneumatic mail system ran from the 1890s through the 1950s and an experimental pneumatic subway was in limited operation from 1870 to 1873. At the same time, these tubes were relatively common in offices, hotels, and department stores (most of which have been gorgeously photographed).

As I wrote in an earlier article, North Philadelphia 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.

Though these tubes have flirted with obsolescence, the pneumatic dream has been surprisingly resilient. Thanks to modern hybrids like the Hyperloop, there's something insistently futuristic about these inventions — even though they've been moving people for more than a century.

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