After a Steampunk-flavored historic overview and an inevitable "How does it work?" article, it's time to concentrate on pneumatic communications of the Diesel Era and also on the part played by these glorious tubes in fiction, Utopian and Dystopian.
New idea? Not so new: In Michel & Jules Verne's The Day of an American Journalist in 2889 (1889) the Society for Supplying Food to the Home allows subscribers to receive meals pneumatically. In the same story, submarine tubes carry people faster than aero-trains. Seven years earlier, in 1882, Albert Robida described a 1950s Paris where tube trains have replaced railways, pneumatic mail is ubiquitous, and catering companies compete to deliver meals on tap to people's homes through pneumatic tubes. Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward (1888) envisioned the world of 2000 as interlinked with tubes for delivering goods.
In Europe, it continued to grow. Look at 1930s pneumatic post terminal in London:
No wonder that in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, newspapers are delivered to Winston Smith's desk by pneumatic tubes.
In a sequence from the 1968 film Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses), François Truffaut shows the fast transportation of a letter through the underground pneumatic tubes system in Paris. (This scene was later parodied in The Simpsons episode "Marge Gets a Job"). Paris tube mail was closed only in 1984.
It was damaged during WWII, suffered additional damage in course of Berlin Blockade (1948-1949) but continued to operate till 1955 in the Eastern part of the city and till 1963 in West Berlin.
In Soviet Russia, pneumatic tubes installed in the main post offices of Moscow and Leningrad as well as in large government buildings and libraries, were used well into 1970s. It's interesting that Alexander Belyayev, the most prominent Russian sci-fi author of the Interbellum years, was very sceptical about the tube mail. In 1926, he wrote: "Pneumatic mail is more expensive, its capacity is limited, making it unfit for delivery of cheap bulk correspondence like newspapers, parcels, etc. City express mail is gradually replaced by the telephone, that also serves for telegram delivery. Even inside the post offices tube mail is considered less practical than a transporter (conveyor). "
Now back to the States. Do you know that every large and self-respecting US Navy warship had its own pneumatic mail system? Here's one aboard USS Midway (photographed by vovsun @ LJ):
During WWII, pneumatic tubes were used by the military as well by the US Weather Bureau and commercial bodies like railroads and Western Union. Three photographs from the Library of Congress vaults, 1942-1943:
Tube mail (often called PCP) is still used by banks, libraries and airports (most notably, the Denver International). But you can not send a postcard by tube from your post office.
Finally, to the future that never was. In 1985, the movie Brazil used tubes (as well as other anachronistic-seeming technologies) to evoke the stagnation of bureaucracy.other anachronistic-seeming technologies) to evoke the stagnation of bureaucracy. At the start of each episode of the 1998 television series Fantasy Island, a darker version of the original, bookings for would-be visitors to the Island were sent to Mr. Roarke via a pneumatic tube from a dusty old travel agency. The failure of pneumatic tubes to live up to their potential as envisioned in previous centuries has placed them in the company of flying cars and dirigibles as ripe for ironic retro-futurism. Ironic, but not pathetic. I believe it could still serve us today, much better than scooterboys. Is it so hard to develop a pizza that would fit in a capsule?
Wiki text used.