The Life of Pneumatic Tubes

Creators
Amelia Catalano and Alison Rhonemus

Pfft – just like that. So, E.B. White describes the efficiency of the pneumatic mail service in New York, only four years before its demise. White describes the process of conveying mail through pneumatic tubes as part of the miracle of New York. “The whole thing is implausible” and “reason enough to abandon the island to the gods and the weevils.” White contends. The system of cast-iron tubes used compressed air to transport 24 x 8 in steel canisters at 30 miles per hour between post offices. The modern day message in a bottle, “When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blow to her through a pneumatic tube – pfft – just like that.”

The first pneumatic mail tube operated by the U.S. Post Office in New York began carrying mail in 1897. The tube line ran from the General Post Office in Manhattan to the Produce Exchange in lower Manhattan. By August 1898 pneumatic service extended over the Brooklyn Bridge with transport from the church st po to the general post office in brooklyn taking about 4 minutes. Additions also included service to grand central and harlem. Eventually there were 27 miles of pneumatic mail tubes in New York, connecting 23 post offices. In 1918 Pneumatic Service was halted. New York began pneumatic mail service again in 1922 and continued until 1953. The pneumatic tube over the brooklyn bridge was removed during construction in the 1950s much of the rest of the city’s tubes remain intact although dormant, mostly unseen and unused.

Pneumatic New York has a secret life connected with Alfred Ely Beach, creator of an early New York Subway at Warren St and Broadway. In order to get his subway past the scrutiny of elevated line proponent, Boss Tweed, Beach describes his passenger subway train as a pneumatic tube system for the mails. To avoid an out and out lie in 1867 Beach constructed a 1000 ft tube that sped letters at 60 miles per hour. Eventually this first installation of Pneumatic New York or of Pneumatic mail in the U.S. Was sealed. Thirty years later pneumatic mail service began in New York. Today pneumatic new york bides its time underground, waiting for what the next phase of history will deliver.

Bibliography and credits
Allen, O. E. (1997) New york’s secret subway. Invention & Technology, (Winter), 44.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). How postal pneumatic tube service carries the United States mails in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia And St. Louis. In (3rd ed., ). Boston, MA: American Pneumatic Service Co.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). Lamson post office near Pennsylvania R. R.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). Transmitters and receivers Postal Station A.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). New York Customs House tube.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). Canisters from Model Post Office at International Exposition, San Francisco.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). New General Post Office.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). Map of New York pneumatic mail system.

American Pneumatic Service Co. (1916). Power plant Time Square Station.

Atlantic Dance Company. “If winter comes”. (Cylinder Archive, http://www.cylinder.de ed.)

Ascher, K. (2005). The works: Anatomy of a city. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Beach, A. E. (1868). The pneumatic dispatch, with illustrations: A compilation of notices and information concerning the pneumatic system of transportation as new building and operating in England; together with accounts of its first trial in the United States, and of proposed applications of the system to passenger and postal service … New York, NY: American news company.

Bobrick, B. (1981). Labryinths of iron: A history of the world’s subways. New York: Newsweek Books.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Illustrated description of the broadway pneumatic underground railway: With A full description of the atmospheric machinery, and the great tunneling machine. New York, NY: SW Green, printer.

Library of Congress. (1915). Brooklyn Bridge.

Library of Congress. William. M. Tweed.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Drawing of Beach tunnel.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Slotted pneumatic tube and valve.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Slotted pneumatic tube.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Entrance to Beach’s subway.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Sounding Beach tunnel at night.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Men at work in Beach tunnel.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Passenger car in Beach subway.

New York Sun. (1914, March 2). Mail automobile on Church St.

New York Sun. (1914, March 2). Mail stalled at GPO.

Rhonemus, Alison. (2012). Untitled Photographs.

Scientific American. (1870, March 5). Broadway subway.

Vogel, R. (1964). Tunnel engineering: A museum treatment. Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology, 240(41), 225.

White, E. B. (1949). Here is New York. New York, NY: The Little Bookroom.

Wikipedia. (ca. 1870). Alfred Ely Beach.

Inspiration
P. 31 “It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible. […] When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube–pfft–just like that.”

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