RESEARCH: Pneumatic tube systems

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Since 2010 I have been researching pneumatic tube systems (systems of pipes which transport solid objects by vacuum) on my blog – www.pneumaticpost.blogspot.com – where I file notes about the life of these systems (particularly in hospitals) alongside other postal, medical and museum related discoveries.

The first time I saw a pneumatic tube system, I had no idea what it was. I was in a hospital doing fieldwork for my PhD, when I saw a nurse open a door in a wall, put a plastic capsule inside, press and button, and woosh, the capsule had disappeared. I felt like I had stepped straight into a scene from Jetsons or Futurama. A little later I saw a French film called Stolen Kisses, where the main character sends a love letter by pneumatic tube. I thought, that’s what I saw in the hospital! I became intrigued and started researching the pneumatic tube systems, which are simply networks of pipes and tubes which transport objects, usually in capsules, by vacuum. The fact that I didn’t recognise a pneumatic tube is not surprising. It is an invisible technology, hidden under city streets in the past, now in the ceilings and walls of banks, pharmacies, supermarkets and hospitals.

In 2013 I was interviewed by Jacob Aron from New Scientist, about my interest in pneumatic tubes. You can read his article here.

I have published one academic paper on pneumatic tubes, in a wonderful collection of chapters about the history of infrastructure:

Harris, Anna. (2017) “Sounds like infrastructure: Examining the materiality of pneumatic tube systems through their sonic traces” in Historicizing Infrastructure, edited by Andreas Marklund and Mogens Ruediger, Aalborg University Press.

I have also given a few academic presentations on this topic:

Anna Harris (2015) Bauformen der Imagination group seminar, 9 February, Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany

Harris, Anna (2015) Department of Sociology seminar, 4 February, Technische Universität, Berlin, Germany

Harris, Anna (2014) The pneumatic underground: memos from the retrofuture, Infrastructure & imagination: anthropocene landscapes, urban deep-ecologies, cybernetic dreams & future-archaeologies panel at the 13th European Association of Social Anthropologists Biennial Conference EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution, Tallinn University, Estonia, 31 July – 3 August

Harris, Anna (2014) Surviving in the hospital: The adaptation and persistence of pneumatic tube systems, New Directions in the History of Infrastructure, Interdisciplinary Conference at the Danish Post & Tele Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark, 26 –28 September

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About pneumaticpost

I am an anthropologist/sociologist researching medical practices. For more about me, click here.

2 comments

  1. That was a very interesting video of tube transport on blogspot, thank you!
    Have you discovered ENVAC yet? They had been CentralSug, a Swedish maker of central vacuum systems for hosptitals circa 1959, when an engineer there decided that more could be done with the technology. Their first vacuum trash removal system was installed in a Swedish hospital in 1961, and since then 600 of their systems have been installed world wide, including the one at Walt Disney World, Florida, USA. Their systems have become more capable, and handle fractional streams for recycle and waste separately. Last year a system of theirs should have gone operational somewhere in Montreal, and they contracted for a project called City Verde, near Quebec.

  2. Anna, I am fascinated by your research. I was born into pneumatic tubing. My dad, after the Second World War left the navy (bazooka research) and started an extrusion company. For 62 years Busada (Busada.com) has made pneumatic tubing. I do have a few pictures that you might like that go back to the 50’s and 60’s.

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