Flashback Tech: Pneumatic Mail Delivery, Popular Mechanics, Feb. 1905

By Natania Barron
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

VacuumpumpOne of the biggest draws about steampunk technology, for me, is that much of it actually existed in some form or another. Last night, through the joy of Twitter, I discovered the endless wonder of GoogleBook’s expansive Popular Mechanics archive, and spent far too long ogling the various inventions and purported world-shattering technologies from the turn of the last century.

While there are a myriad of fascinating pieces in these early issues, one stood out to me in particular. The title: Forty Minutes from Chicago to Milwaukee: Mail and Express to be Hurled Through a Pneumatic Tube at 120 Miles an Hour.

From the article:

From Chicago to Milwaukee in a straight line is 84 1/4 miles. The fastest trains consume two hours in making the trip. It is now proposed to transmit mail and express matter between the two cities in 40 minutes. A pneumatic tube, 18 inches in diameter, conveying up to 500 pounds, is to be constructed; should it prove successful one more means of rapid communication will be available, and other large cities connected.

So, basically this is an enormous version of what we still see used today in banks for transfer from your car to the teller, except stretching almost 90 miles, and entirely underground. According to the article, the cost of the proposed project was in the neighborhood of $5,000,000 (approximately $28m in today’s dollars, using the Consumer Price Index). That’s no small chunk of change.

As with much of the articles in the publication, there’s a certain wonder hidden behind the matter-of-fact delivery. You can tell the writer loves the numbers, the distances, the promise of this invention. And of course, I couldn’t help but notice the aesthetic of the device carrier as mentioned in the piece:

The carriers do not travel on wheels or rollers, but are covered with block felt which is as hard as rock, and fastened with brass caps and screws. It is expected the felt will last several months.

Not only were our Edwardian ancestors also on a quest for continually better–and stylish–rapid communication, but they may have one-upped us even today. At least, according to a recent article on BBC News, a local broadband provider in South Africa was outpaced by a carrier pigeon over a mere 60 mile distance. It took the bird four hours to make the trip.

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