Pneumatic Tubes and Transport

Posted by on January 5th,2007

Pneumatic Transport from 1870

What does Hero of Alexandria, a Scottish inventor and Victorian technology have in common? Generally I’d have said steam engines, but in this case it’s actually pneumatic tubes! While Hero invented the steam engine, he also dabbled and wrote about pneumatics, and indeed in the 1800’s William Murdoch (a rather clever man) invented the message transporation system that we now see in hospitals, banks and supermarkets. The Victorians LOVED the pneumatic tube system, and built many networks in various countries (Prague’s is still in existance, and works very well).

Then, in 1812 George Medhurst proposed the idea of sending people down such tubes at a blindingly fast 20mph – though he discounted the idea soon after, concerned that people would not like to travel in tubes. Despite this, the idea stayed around for some time – being picked up by Jules Verne and seen in his story “Paris in the Twentieth Century” as the means for over-ocean travel. Indeed, people did in fact travel in tubes – in 1861 the Duke of Buckingham (and others) took a 5 minute trip to Euston in a large package pneumatic tube, apparently without ill effect.

But it fell out of favour in the end, and has been relegated to banks, hospitals and supermarkets and borrowed by pulp science fiction (such as the Jetsons and Futurama) and forgotten about in Steampunk. But oh, the idea of stately gentlemen losing a top hat down a Steampunk pneumatic tube from London to Paris (or indeed from New York to New Atlantis) tickles my fancy.