How Pneumatic Tubes Work

You can still see pneumatic tubes in action at your bank drive-up window.
You can still see pneumatic tubes in action at your bank drive-up window.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

For someone who was born after, say 1992, it's probably difficult to imagine, but there was a time when people didn't have e-mail, cell phones or digital books on Kindle. Back in the late 1800s, people mainly communicated long distance by letter or telegram. Even telephones were still a novelty.

Our ancestors' lack of instantaneous communication may make the world of a century or more ago sound hopelessly slow-moving. But it didn't seem that way to them. One reason was that they did have a means of transmitting written and printed information — and other objects as well — in what seemed like a flash. In a sense, it was their version of the Internet, but it wasn't electronic. Instead, they had something called pneumatic tube transport — a bunch of pipelines in which air pressure is used to propel a canister through a system of tubes to its intended destination [source: Library – UC Berkeley].

Starting in the mid-to-late 19thcentury, numerous major cities in the U.S. and other countries built massive underground networks of pneumatic tubes, and relied as heavily upon them as we do upon e-mail today. Pneumatic tube systems worked so well, in fact, New York City's post office used one to move mail around the city until 1953, and Berlin had a similar system up and running until 1976 [source: Web Urbanist].

And while pneumatic tube transport has largely been supplanted by quicker and more convenient electronic methods of transmitting information, the technology still has valuable uses. In this article, we'll talk about how pneumatic tubes work, what they were once used for, and what they are used for today.