Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Pneumatic post aka tube mail or pneumatic mail is a system to deliver letters through pressurized air tubes.

It was envisaged in 17th century by Denis Papin, French physicist and mathematician who also invented the pressure cooker. Two centuries later the idea has been materialized by the Scottish engineer William Murdoch in the 19th century and was later developed by the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company. In 1859 Thomas Webster Rammell and Latimer Clark proposed the development of an underground tube network within central London "for the more speedy and convenient circulation of despatches and parcels". It seems the engineers had aspirations for the system to eventually transport all kinds of general freight, and passengers. The company initially raised £25,000 in order to test the technology and construct a pilot route. Early experiments were conducted at the Soho works of Boulton and Watt in Birmingham.

A permanent line was constructed between the Euston station of the London and North Western Railway (beneath platform one), and the North West District Post Office in Eversholt Street (1/3 mile), using a 30 inch diameter tube and similar technology to that tested at Battersea. The line was tested from 15th January 1863, and put into operation on 20th February 1863. A single capsule, conveying up to 35 bags of mail could make the short journey between terminals in one minute, twice the speed of mailcarts. 13 journeys were operated each day, with a daily operating cost of £1 4s 5d. The Post Office were charged a nominal fee for use of the service, presumably to encourage them to accept the technology.

Construction was re-started in 1868, when additional finance was found for the route, and it was completed to Newgate Street in 1869. The Newgate Street terminus was 1,658 yards from Holborn and 4,738 yards from Euston. The journey time from the General Post Office was 17 minutes, at speeds of up to 60 mph.
The company obtained further powers to construct additional routes in London from Parliament in August 1872.
At the beginning of 1874 the Post Office agreed to use the system for traffic from the Central Post Office to Euston. However it found only a 4 minute time saving to be achieved, and doubted the system's reliability or ability to convey heavier loads. In October 1874 the Post Office informed the company that there was no long term prospect of Post Office traffic on the system, and the system was shut.
The tubes were retained for at least 20 years, while the Post Office considered electric traction. The company was restored in 1895, in the belief that the Post Office would wish to use the old tunnels. Finally, the tunnels were purchased by the Post Office in 1921, to run telephone cables in... No wonder that in "Double or Die" by Charlie Higson the young James Bond travels down to the London docks on a disused underground pneumatic railway!

If in London there was only a talk about pneumatic passenger service, in New York such service was pretty close to realization. In January 1867, the Scientific American edited by Alfred Ely Beach ran a frontpage article describing the London parcel tube system and proposing the same thing for New York. This was still for small tubes, for mail and packages. It was later that month that the Senate Select Committee reported in favor of underground passenger railways, if the problem of motive power could be solved.
For the upcoming exhibition of the American Institute, Beach financed two demonstrations of pneumatic dispatch, one of which was large enough for passengers to ride in. The fair ran from September 12 to October 26, 1867. Shortly before the start of the fair, the Times predicted some startling novelties, among them a great pneumatic tube, through which the adventurous will be carried north and south according to the fancy or advice of their physicians.

In October the Scientific Americcan related that the exhibition may now be said to have reached its full glory … The most novel and attractive feature of the exhibition is by general consent conceded to be the Pneumatic Railway, erected by Mr A E Beach, of the Scientific American, and everyone visiting the Fair seems to consider himself specially called upon to visit, and, after actual experience, to pronounce his verdict upon this mode of traveling.
It was a 32.6 m long, 1.8 m diameter pipe that was capable of moving 12 passengers plus a conductor.

Beach published a promotional booklet in January 1868 called The Pneumatic Dispatch. Despite the title it covered both small dispatch tubes and larger passenger railways. The two English pneumatic railways were the models from which he was working. He credited Rammell for the concept of the entire car running in a pneumatic tube. This was what Beach wanted to do. The Rammell patents left many details of design and machinery to be developed, improved, and patented, by Beach and others.

In 1869, the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company of New York secretly constructed a 95 m long, 2.7 m diameter pneumatic subway line under Broadway, to demonstrate the possibilities of the new transport mode. The line only operated for a few months, closing after Beach was unsuccessful in getting permission to extend it - Boss Tweed, an immensely powerful local politician, did not want it to go ahead as he was intending to personally invest into competing schemes for an elevated rail line.
Of course, Beach had his own idea of an elevated:

There were other projects, too:

But the NY elevated was built in a more conventional manner. In the meanwhile, less sensational technology conquered cities and continents: the telegraph conveyor, that became the ultimate instrument of in-city express mail service. In London, it was operated since 1853, i.e. ten years before the Pneumatic Despatch inauguration. The system conveyed messages which had been transcribed from the telegraph. Mr Josiah Latimer Clark (future companion of Rammell) installed 675ft of 1 1/2 inch diameter tube, with messages conveyed in felt bags by pressure differentials generated by a single 6 horse power (hp) engine.
In 1858 the Electric and International Telegraph Company built another tube 3,120 ft long with a diameter of 2 1/4 inches, to an unknown location within London. Other tubes followed. By 1860 the Electric and International Telegraph Company systems had linked their central office in Lothbury with stations at the stock exchange, and at Cornhill. Systems were also installed outside of London, for example, that installed by Mr C. A. Varley in July 1864 in Liverpool.
Continental cities quickly followed suit: in 1865, the Rohrpost (tube mail) was inaugurated in Berlin, in 1866 in Paris, in 1867 in Vienna, in 1887 in Prague.

Parisian Pneumatique deserves a special attention: in the 20th century it became the world's largest with 467 kilometers in total length. The network was commenced by the construction of an experimental line between the telegraph offices at Grand Hotel and place de la Bourse.

Until 1898, the use of official stationary was obligatory - blue cards with imprinted stamp and an inscription Télégramme or Carte-Télégramme (the service was operated by the State Telegraph). The customers could chose between regular and "closed" cards. The latter were double-folded with perforated and glued margins. There were also "Pneumatic envelopes", also with imprinted stamp, and reply-paid postcards (with double tariff, naturally). After the admissibility of private stationery in 1898, many Parisian printers produced light weight envelopes inscribed 'Télégramme Pneumatique' or 'Service Pneumatique'.

For generations the pneumatic letter-card was known affectionately as the petit bleu since it was on blue paper and it was under this name that a 'Télégramme' was a vital piece of evidence in the enquiries which led to the eventual acquittal of Dreyfus. At a court-martial in December 1894 he had been found guilty of passing military secrets to the Germans and was transported to Cayenne. In 1896 the contents of a waste paper basket in the office of Schwartzkoppen, the German military attache in Paris, were taken to the French Intelligence Staff and found to include a torn-up pneu which had never been sent.
When pieced together, it was found that the petit bleu contained a message to another French officer, Esterhazy, implicating him in the offences attributed to Dreyfus. Thus started the chain of events which culminated in 1906 with the ceremonial restoration of his commission to Dreyfus.
Marseille also had its Pneumatique with special stationery:

Berlin tube network was the brainchild of Postmaster General Heinrich von Stephan who was also the Universal Postal Union founder. The Rohrpost was made available to the public in 1876 (before that it delivered only telegrams between the General Post Office and Stock Exchange). In 1900 it had 118 km in total length, connecting 15 post offices and delivering more than 6 million messages and small parcels annually.

Tube mail was also introduced in Munich, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt/Main, Dusseldorf and Chemnitz.

In Vienna, the pneumatic mail was opened to the public in 1875, beginning with modest 14 km line and expanding to 82,5 km in 1913. At its peak it connected 53 post offices, delivering 20,000 capsules per day.

Here's a letter from Serbia that made its final "leg" (between the main and the local post offices) by tube:

* * *
In New York the pneumatic mail service opened only in 1897, when both A E Beach and Boss Tweed were no more than a distant memory.

At the beginning of the 1890s Charles Emory Smith, a former newspaper editor and ambassador to Russia, was appointed Postmaster General. An $8 million pneumatic system was developed in major Eastern US cities. A 6 inch diameter, 3,000 foot long system was constructed in Philadelphia between 1892 and 1893, for the transport of mail between two post offices.

An 8 inch diameter line was added by Congress between 1897 and 1898, along with three new lines in New York and one in Boston. The lines allowed the movement of mail between post offices and neighbourhood post offices, and to railway terminals. In 1902 additional lines were added in New York and Chicago, with an additional lines in St Louis in 1906 taking the entire network to 63 miles of 'double tube'.

Canisters (capsules) containing up to 500 letters travelled at 30mph under the streets of a number of cities. By 1916 systems were in place in Boston (14 miles of tube), Chicago (20 miles), New York (55 miles), St Louis (4 miles) and Philadelphia (20 miles). Extensive use was made of some of the larger systems - typically a third of all first class letters passing through the New York mail system were distributed in part via pneumatic tubes.

In 1918 debate about the relative costs of different systems for moving mail came to the fore. A Congress committee found that use of the pneumatic tubes cost $17,000 per mile per annum, with rental charges for the tubes an 'exorbitant, unjustified and an extravagant waste of public funds'. This combined with the growth of the automobile and traffic control systems in major cities, marked the end of further development for the pneumatic mail networks. However, all but the Philadelphia system operated until the 1950s. In 1900 Charles Emory Smith had predicted that pneumatic tube systems would eventually link every household to the rest of the network. This dream was never to be realised; at least not yet...

Sources: Capsu.org, Beach Pneumatic by Joseph Brennan, The Pneumatic Post of Paris by J.D. Hayhurst O.B.E., Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress.

More stamps & stationery in our Tube Mail album. Browse it or enjoy the slideshow:

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Comment by Deven Science on November 17, 2010 at 4:24am
I've seen many pneumatic tube lines installed. They're still used in hospitals and labs. The capsule, which is about 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter (I'm not sure precisely), travels in a tube that has a turn radius is 6 feet. It annoys all the other trades (plumbers, elcetricians, etc.), because their lines always have the right-of-way when installing, since such a large turn radius makes them limited in their ability to move around other objects.
Comment by lord_k on November 17, 2010 at 2:55am
To Pilsner Panther:
Of course they are still in use, but their glory days are over.
Comment by Pilsner Panther on November 17, 2010 at 2:49am
In my first "real" job in the 1980's, I worked for an old-line fabric wholesaler in Manhattan's garment district that still had a functioning pneumatic tube system for delivering messages between the upstairs offices and the downstairs warehouse. The "capsules" looked almost exactly like the one in the photo, except that by then, the bodies were made of clear plexiglass, with metal and rubber end caps. I'm sure it's not there any more, since the company later moved to Long Island City. It would be interesting to know if any of these systems are still in regular use somewhere.
Comment by lord_k on November 17, 2010 at 2:04am
Thank you Larry.
Comment by Larry on November 16, 2010 at 7:50pm
Pneumatics have long fascinated me. This is a fantastic post.

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