Sunday, September 10, 2017

hyper interest in hyperloop

It would have been hard recently to have escaped news updates on the Hyperloop, with reports of its first test, as well as talk of the Hyperloop coming to Europe.

The Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment in the country I am living in, the Netherlands, apparently being a "hyperloop enthusiast". Delft University will launch Europe's first test track.

Despite being quite a different kind of infrastructural set-up, the Hyperloop continues to be compared to pneumatic tube systems in much of this reporting. See for example, the Business Insider which traces the history of technologies which preceded the Hyperloop, and includes various different pneumatic tube systems.

Image used under CC lisence, from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 14, 2017

starring pneumatic tubes

It's been months since I've blogged, a new baby as an excuse, but there are so many exciting pneumatic tube happenings at the moment, I need to steal some time to get back here while my little one sleeps...

First, Logan Lucky. It's the movie we've all been waiting for, one where pneumatic tubes take a long-deserved central role.

Two brothers plan the heist of a lifetime, attempting to make the steal during a car race. Where is the money? In the tubes of course.

The movie promises to be great fun, with loads of pneumatic tubes judging from the trailer. The screenwriter Rebecca Blunt was inspired to use pneumatic tubes from her childhood fascination with the tubes in drive-thru banks.

It's coming to cinemas in only a few weeks. For those who haven't seen the preview, you can watch it here.

Reviews so far are good! Will report back after seeing it.

And thanks so much to the poster on my website for alerting me to this months ago.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

infrastructures and networks

I am very pleased to share the news of the recent publication of a wonderful collection of essays on infrastructure, of which I am part of, with an essay on pneumatic tubes.

The book is called Historicizing Infrastructure and is edited by Andreas Marklund and Mogens Ruediger. Andreas and Mogens organised the history of infrastructure conference at the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen that I wrote about in July and then October 2014. The presentations were so interesting they felt they had to compile a book.

Here is a short description of the contents of what they produced:
How does one handle a concept like ‘infrastructure’, which seems, simultaneously, so vague and yet heavily technical? In this international research volume, nine historians and cultural researchers from different academic institutions delve into the historical dimensions of infrastructural development. The interplay of infrastructures with society and its dominant political ideas and cultural beliefs is at the core of the analyses. A wide range of topics and historical contexts are covered by the book, from nineteenth-century railroads and territorial identities, and the sonic features of pneumatic tube systems, to privacy and security issues in relation to modern telecommunications, and the materiality of satellite television at the end of the Cold War.
I am so happy to be sharing the pages with these fascinating contributions and contributors! And Andreas and Mogens made working on this such a pleasure. My chapter is called "Sounds like infrastructure: Examining the materiality of pneumatic tube systems through their sonic traces". Here is my abstract for the chapter:
In the last few decades infrastructures have become increasingly visible in the social sciences, following a much longer engagement by historians. Recent anthropological work on infrastructure often adopts a practice-orientated approach, which focuses on the ways in which they are shaped through entangled material and social relations. In this paper I argue that such an approach can be strengthened by attention to the sensory and imaginative dimensions of infrastructure, which helps to articulate the vibrancy and fragility of such sociomaterial assemblages. I do so in order to suggest new methodological directions for the history of infrastructure. In order to illustrate my argument I use the case study of an infrastructure which once existed through large technical systems under city streets, and now is constructed on much smaller scales in buildings such as hospitals; pneumatic tube systems. Pneumatic tube systems highlight the durability of infrastructures over time. They are used nowadays to move materials which cannot be uploaded, scanned or printed; materials which come with traces of the personal, whether this is a piece of human tissue or trash. Following the practices of pneumatic tube systems ethnographically highlights the multisensory nature of infrastructures, which refuse to stay buried and quiet. Focusing particularly on sound, I look at examples of how sounds and listening practices signal infrastructures working smoothly as well as moments of breakdown and blockage. Working with infrastructures entails sonic skills, which becomes part of professional practice. I suggest that as well as making infrastructures more visible in our historical and anthropological engagements, we should also make them more audible. Often we tend to attribute sensory qualities to nature rather than technologies. Attending to the sensory dimensions of infrastructure however helps to understand more about their temporality and affects, which forwards our understanding of the role of infrastructural technologies in the modernization of society. In making this methodological plea, I suggest that sensory methods have as much relevance for historical studies as for the social sciences where they are more commonly used, and that both anthropology and history can learn from working closely alongside each other in their studies of the infrastructural arrangements of social life.
I would highly encourage you to buy the book, but if you are not able to but want to read the chapter, write to me and I can send you a copy of my piece.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


While fascinating technologies such as Hyperface, Adam Harvey's countersurveillance project, are making recent news, another project from the Chaos Community Congress from a previous year may also be of interest to Rohrpost-Nerds.

The 303C in 2013 saw the installation of the Seidenstrasse, the congress pneumatic tube system. Inspired by the OCTO installation at the 2013 transmediale festival, which I wrote about here, the Seidenstrasse was installed in the main congress building, using 2 kilometers of tubing. In the lead up to the event, participants were instructed as follows:
Without YOUR capsules Seidenstrasse cannot work – bring one, two, many! Lighting is mandatory, since it makes debugging much easier in case a capsule gets stuck. The possibilities range from capsules made from plastic bottles (cheap and simple) to 3D printed or encrypted capsules. Old vacuum cleaners, leaf blowers and the like are also welcome – please remember to build some kind of noise isolation if you bring a device for blowing or vacuuming ...

For the whole thing to be fun, creative hacker solutions and wild love of experimentation are needed. Some hackerspaces, including Chaos inKL. in Kaiserslautern, Raumfahrtagentur in Berlin, or the protolab in Kleinmachnow are already hacking and making. There are still a lot of unsolved problems left though, waiting for a smart hack: For example solutions for crossing fire emergency doors, which can not be blocked by pipes. The capsules could at these places e.g. fly through the air and be vacuumed in again, or be transported by human or robotic messengers.

Installations for (semi) automatic capsule routing would be rad, or installation details for the switching nodes, or solutions for hanging the pipes at the ceiling, or concepts for Onion Routing, Hidden Servides and so on. Also still missing are capsule counters for network traffic analysis (for the SOC report on day 4).

For this we hope for broad participation by the Chaos family and hacker spaces. You have always wanted a pneumatic post system between the rooms of your space, right? :-)
If anyone who reads this post was at the congress and even sent off a capsule, I would love to hear what it was like!

You can read more about the Silk Road experiment on the Chaos Computer Club website here.

Thanks very much to Thomas for telling me about Hyperface, and Stefan for sending me the links for the Seidenstrasse.

Stefan also sent me a link to a German blogpost by Leitmedium about the Rohrpost exhibit in the communications museum in Berlin, which German speakers and readers may be interested in. You can read it here.

Image used under the Creative Commons licence from Robert Anders' Flikr photostream.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

messages at sea

Happy 2017! As we look to the year ahead, a message from the past, from my pre-Christmas inbox, thanks to Patryk. This time he takes me to 1960, to the classic war film Sink the Bismark! Central to the action and the quest to sink that ship, prominently positioned in the headquarters of the British Admiralty, is a large as life Lamson tube system.
Messages come and go, arriving in the background as characters plot and strategise. Apparently the tubes play an important role in catching the Bismark. I am only halfway through the movie so far, so I am yet to find out how, but you can see for yourself here:

Thanks again Patryk for another piece of fantastic pneumatic post!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

never getting off the (under)ground

The JSTOR Daily Digest recently highlighted an article in the history of technology journal ICON, on pneumatic tube systems. The article documents Beach's system in NYC for human transportation, highlighting the social, economic and political reasons it never really got "off the (under) ground".

The article looks great and I have downloaded it to read - if you can't access a copy but would like to read it too, let me know by email and I will forward a PDF through my library.

Image of Beach's system by Scientific American - Scientific American - March 5, 1870 issue, Public Domain,

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

travel by tube "a thing"

The Hyperloop continues to make news and continues to be linked to pneumatic tubes. See the latest in this article in Automobile, which calls the Hyperloop a "series of powerful pneumatic tubes", or the human equivalent of the plastic tubes in bank drive-thrus.

Image from Kevin Krejci's Flickr, used under the Creative Commons lisence.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

posting wishes into the abyss

The London Design Biennale, the first ever, took place over a few weeks at Somerset House last month and lucky visitors were be invited to meet a rather special series of pneumatic tubes. The theme was "Utopia by Design" and what better example of this than the beautifully dystopian/utopian pneumatic tube system.

Archinect reports on Turkey's contribution, the installation in the Biennale of The Wish Machine, by Istanbul based Autoban: a tunnel made of transparent hexagonal pneumatic tubes. The tubes are situated in a mirrored space, amplifying the effect of the multiple passages of the messages that are passing through. Visitors have a chance to write their own notes, their own hopes and wishes for a utopian future and feeding them into the Wish machine. Just like throwing coins into a wishing well, the final destination of these notes will remain a mystery.

The website reports that the installation was "inspired by the cultural tradition of threading a note or momento to the branch of a tree as an act of hope born out of hopelessness".

Thanks to Jess for first letting me know about this!

Unfortunately I cannot find any images from the exhibition which are free to share (please let me know if you have any!). There are however lots of great images on the online platform Archinect, as well as De Zeen.

The installation was at the Design Biennale 7th to 27th September 2016.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

sent via atomic fairies and unicorns

Plenty of pneumatic tubes have been captured on Kodak film, although unlike today's camera, the smartphone, it would have been difficult to make the kind of videos I reported on last week with a film camera.

It turns out that Kodak was using pneumatic tubes themselves, but for a very strange purpose - to transport nuclear tests as late as 2006. They had their very own nuclear reactor which was housed in a "closely guarded, two-foot-think concrete walled underground bunker in the company's headquarters" in Rochester New York, according to this Gizmodo report. Reminiscent of the fantastical contemporary art installation in Paris recently, it was "fed tests" by pneumatic tube system, with no employees ever making contact with the reactor. In a sarcastic wink to the fact that humans are always mixed up with technologies, Gizmodo report that apparently the system must have been operated by "atomic fairies and unicorns".

Thanks again to Long Branch Mike for sharing with me another fascinating piece of pneumatic tube pneus.

Flickr image by Asja Boros used under the Creative Commons lisence.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

smart hospital

When the University of Virginia hospital had problems with some of their blood samples in their pneumatic tube system, they turned to one of the most increasingly ubiquitous and handy tools so many of us now have at our disposal: the smartphone.
Using their old smartphones' accelerometer to assess the forces acting on the blood samples during transit, a clinical chemistry postdoctoral fellow and a professor of pathology conducted an experiment. With one smartphone taking recordings and the other shedding light on the video, they sent their phones through the hospital's system. The footage was revealing - the longest track of tube was the problem, and they found frothiness and bubbles which dissipated soon after arrival. They concluded that the smartphone was a great way to monitor such systems.

The pneumatic tube experiment has been written up in the journal Clinical Chemistry. You can find the video footage which supplements the article here. Could this be the first time that tube cam footage has been submitted as scientific evidence??

Read more in the UVA Today article.