While the Internet has indeed made the transportation of data and information as fast as possible, mankind has long been interested in the rapid transportation of physical objects.
Today’s younger generation may not even be familiar with the pneumatic tube system, a complex network of tubes that allows objects to be transported using the power of air and negative pressure.
How do pneumatic hoses work?
Because of their relatively old technology, pneumatic tube systems are based on rudimentary principles. For example, the concepts used in pneumatic piping systems are no different than those used when someone sucks lemonade through a straw.
The components of a pneumatic tube system like Washington Security Products’ are very simple. Firstly, the system requires a network of pipes. The main driving force of the pneumatic tube system is air and air pressure, which means that it is not enough to put an object into the tube. The product to be transported shall be contained in a receptacle – a cylindrical section inserted into the tube.
The piping system also needs connections into which supports are inserted and removed from the system – these are the stations. Finally, the air is moved by fans. Depending on their design, blowers are often tasked with drawing air from a piping system, creating a negative pressure that also draws in the carrier to be moved.
The pneumatic tube journey in the last century
The pneumatic tube system has been around for a long time, and the concept even longer.
Already in 1799 the inventor George Medhurst suggested the idea to transport goods and even people in pipes by means of air pressure.
One of the first iterations of the pneumatic tube system was established in the 1850s between the London Stock Exchange and the Electric Telegraph Company. A network of handsets between the two companies enabled the Electric Telegraph Company to obtain information on stock prices to transmit to the telegraph wires.
This system proved to be very efficient, especially compared to the alternative where runners had to carry messages between two buildings. This system was then followed by other local power stations in the region, such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.
In 1859, the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company was established to design, install and operate pneumatic tube systems for carrying mail and parcels through London. This system, in use between 1863 and 1874, used rolling gondolas that could carry 13 mail packages at one time.
Given the reliance on the internet today, it is not surprising that pneumatic tube systems used to be very popular for postal services. Paris had an extensive network of pneumatic pipes over a distance of 427 kilometers. The Paris pneumatic tube was in service since 1866 and operated until the network closed in 1984.
It was not until 1893 that pneumatic tubing was first introduced in North America. The technology was first introduced in Philadelphia by Postmaster General John Wanamaker, but quickly spread to other post offices in the US, including New York, Chicago, Boston and St. Louis.
These pneumatic tube systems were operated and maintained by the U.S. Postal Department until 1953.
Small pneumatic hose systems have also been introduced into office buildings, allowing information to be transported from one room to another at high speed. Even for a service as technologically advanced as NASA’s control room, pneumatic tube carriers are visible in the famous Apollo 13 space recording.
In addition to the transportation of goods and packages, the concept of pneumatic tubes has always been considered for the transportation of people. Several inventors theorized that the system could be used to transport people.
One application of this concept would be the use of atmospheric orbits. These are rail vehicles that move along rails by the force of air pressure. Although several conceptual iterations and prototypes were proposed, they were all eventually overtaken by various flaws and problems.
Pneumatic piping systems today
Despite this steady decline, pneumatic tube systems still exist today. Companies specializing in pneumatic tube system solutions continue to use these tube networks effectively in various modern industries.
Pneumatic tube systems are used to improve the efficiency of bearings and switchgear and increase their capacity and load. Casinos and banks use pneumatic tube systems to transport money securely without fear of theft. Pneumatic tube systems are also used in hospitals to quickly and safely transport samples that need to be processed as quickly as possible.
The use of pneumatic tube systems can only be limited by people’s imagination. McDonald’s in Edina, Minnesota, used a pneumatic tube system for its training. The fast-food restaurant was located in a shopping mall, but the pneumatic system allowed the food to be delivered to the parking lot.
Perhaps the most recent event in pneumatic tube history is the announcement of the Hyperloop, a proposed method of transporting people. The Hyperloop, publicly announced by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, is essentially a combination of two technologies: a pneumatic tube system and maglev.
Despite the efficiency of the pneumatic tube system, there is always energy loss due to friction between the carrier and the tubes. By forcing the passenger carrier to float on the rails, friction is eliminated, allowing the proposed Hyperloop concept to move efficiently at high speeds.
Many factors are responsible for the decline in the use of pneumatic tube systems and their development. Some say the advent of roads and vehicles has made it more expensive and difficult to build and maintain piping systems over large geographic areas. Despite the age of this technology, there seems to be hope for its revival. Many modern industries still use it today, and the concept of physical delivery of goods in a short time is still a dream.
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