Chapter 13: Pipeline as Network: Pneumatic Systems and the Social Order

Holly Kruse

The pneumatic tube is an extant, yet often overlooked, communication and information technology that has much to tell us about networked technologies in the contemporary world. Even though James Carey points out that the telegraph was the first technology to divorce communication from transportation, one might argue that another early nineteenth century innovation – capsules carrying messages in pneumatic tube systems – accompanied the telegraph in decoupling the sending of messages and transportation. Messages in underground pneumatic postal systems in the nineteenth century traveled faster than human assisted transport could carry them; pneumatic tube networks also enabled telegraph messages to more quickly reach their recipients, more fully allowing the telegraph to be considered “the Victorian Internet,” as proposed by Tom Standage.

Pneumatic systems did not merely foreshadow the physical structure of modern communication and information networks: they illustrate the ways in which networked technologies have reified relations of power, including in terms of gender and class. While the nineteenth century saw the introduction of such systems for mass message transport, it always saw the growing use of pneumatic networks to send “buy” and “sell” orders to the floors of stock exchanges and to carry money from clerks to central change-making locations in department stores. Indeed, clerical jobs were often tied to pneumatic systems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Moreover, department store clerk, office worker, and increasingly as the nineteenth century progressed, postal worker were among the few jobs that were open to women. These were white-collar jobs often sought after by those who aspired to join the growing middle-class. Although with a few exceptions – like Weaver’s in Lawrence, Kansas – department stores no longer use pneumatic networks, the technology is still a staple in the banking industry, especially in conjunction with drive-through windows, which are usually staffed by female tellers. Pneumatic transport systems are also widely used in another service industry – health care – where hospitals use them to quickly and efficiently move samples from one location to another.

As with newer information and communication networks, discourses of efficiency were and do frame discussions of pneumatic systems. As with electrical and electronic networks, pneumatic systems promised and continue to promise faster transport of information and greater freedom from the constraints of geography for some, while reinforcing limits on mobility and autonomy for others. For instance, the banking industry has wedded pneumatic tubes to telephones and video screens, creating remote teller systems that link bank customers to tellers who are clustered in a workroom elsewhere in the bank.

This chapter describes pneumatic systems as agents of disembodied communication and information transport, as constitutive of relations of power (especially those related to gender and class) that are understood and enacted in geographies, and as corollaries of other networked media in the ways that they organize space and meaning.