From the Archives

UnCommon Ground - From the Archives Spring 2016

Humans are at their most inventive when they’re trying to increase efficiency and decrease effort. Anyone who climbs the steps from the lower campus to the top of the Hill shares a fantasy of an all-weather escalator, possibly a ski lift.

Here’s a transport device that you can imagine coming straight out of a comic book: instant deliveries combining the old message-in-a-bottle trope with the concept of indoor plumbing. Pneumatic Tube Transport was in fact invented within a few years of modern plumbing, in the mid-19th century, using vacuum air pressure to transport encapsulated letters and small packages between offices through a network of tubes. Early on, there was an idea that this technology could be used to move heavy freight—and even people—long distances, but in the end, the London tube system relied on rails, not suction. Still used in laboratories, factories, and drive-through banks, pneumatic tubes were once a common sight in department stores, post offices, and stock exchanges.

For decades, the seven floors of stacks at the back of William Howard Doane Library were accessible only to a staff of student pages who would find, fetch, and deliver requested books. This would have meant a lot of running up and down stairs all day, but instead, you would identify the books you wanted using the first-floor card catalog, fill out a “call slip,” and hand it to the librarian or clerk at the circulation desk, who would clip the request inside a capsule like this one and pop it into the nearby vacuum tube.

Within seconds, it would reach the station on the appropriate floor, and the capsule would land with a gentle plunk onto the velvet cushion in one of these metal “wicker” baskets. A small electric book conveyor was installed right beside the pneumatic tube station, so when the requested books were found, they would be delivered promptly from the stacks down to the circulation desk. This tidy system became obsolete after the stacks were opened to general use in the late 1960s–early ’70s. The mechanics remained intact until a new air conditioning system using that space was installed in 1997.

Published May 2016