Today, guest scientist Andrew Boyd and the Internet of Tubes. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Alaska senator Ted Stevens made himself a media target with
a shockingly incoherent statement about the Internet. Chairman of the Senate
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Stevens was lambasted by comedians
and the press for using phrases like "an Internet was sent by my staff."
His most celebrated remark was:
"The Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes."
Crazy as the idea of "tubes" sounds, is it really such a bad analogy for the Internet?
It calls up the pneumatic tubes used at drive-up banks to transport paperwork to and from cars.
Put your documents in a sealed canister, push a button, and whoosh -- the canister goes
flying through a tube to arrive behind bulletproof glass. As a child I remember watching
pneumatic tubes being used to transport documents high over the interior of warehouses,
relishing every twist and turn.
Few people realize that pneumatic tubes were the pinnacle of late nineteenth century
communication technology. One of the earliest commercial applications dates to 1853,
when a tube was used to transfer messages between a private telegraph office and the
London stock exchange, 200 yards away. But it was not until 1870 when J. W. Willmot
introduced technology making it possible for more than one canister to travel in a tube
at the same time, that tube networks really began to grow.
Within four years of Willmot's invention, tubes connected London's Central Telegram
Office with the many district post offices, and the expanding system handled
four-and-a-half million messages a year. Twelve years later, the London system
stretched over 34 miles and was powered by four 50 horsepower engines. Canisters
made of gutta percha -- the same material then used to make golf balls
-- were wrapped in felt and traveled at an average speed of 20 miles an hour, propelled
by pressure differences at the two ends of a tube. Throughout all Britain, including
many smaller cities that had their own tube networks, the year 1886 saw over 50
thousand messages delivered by tube each day -- over 18 million per year.
The great cities of mainland Europe weren't far behind. Pneumatic tube systems were
developed in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Rome, Naples, Milan, and Marseilles.
One of the world's great systems was in Paris, where the combined tube length was
over 200 miles. Formally known as the "Carte Pneumatique," Parisians simply called
it the "pneu." Originally designed to carry only transcribed telegrams, the pneu was
eventually opened to the general public as an alternative to the postal system.
Parisians used it for much the same reason we use the Internet today: speed of
delivery. Of course, if too many people wanted to send messages at the same time,
the system would become clogged with mail and slow down.
So, in the end, perhaps we shouldn't be so hard on Senator Stevens. After all, he wasn't
entirely wrong. He was just a century behind the times.
I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in
the way inventive minds work.
Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President at PROS,
a provider of provider of pricing and revenue optimization solutions.
Dr. Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at Oberlin College with majors
in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Operations Research
from MIT in 1987. Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten year
career as a university professor.
For a good summary with links to references, see Howgego, T. at:
MacGregor, J., Pneumatic Dispatch. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 18,
pp. 95-96, 1957.
MacGregor, J., Pneumatic Tubes and Telegram Conveyors. The British Post
Office Green Papers, Number 9 (see:
Hayhurst, J. D., The Pneumatic Post of Paris. The France and Colonies
Philatelic Society of Great Britain, 1974 (see this
online article by J.D. Hayhurst).
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pneumatic_tube
A period pneumatic mail capsule (Courtesy of the National Postal Museum)
Cover for a pneumatically posted letter (Courtesy of the National Postal Museum)
1894 Encyclopaedia Britannica
statistics on the early growth of pneumatic postal tubes.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.