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The History of Pneumatic Tubes

Learn about the cool history of the tubes at your credit union drive-through.


Pneumatic tubes have been used to transport small items since 1799. When William Murdoch invented the first one, it was more of a novelty and only sent small notes back and forth. Today, you can most likely see them at your local credit union or big box store. But there have been some pretty interesting uses in the last few hundred years.

Sending items through pneumatic tubes was pioneered by William Murdoch. His original system was small and used to send small notes back and forth. It wasn’t until 1854 that Josiah Latimer Clark patented the idea. Clark installed his system between the London Stock Exchange and thbank pnematic tubese telegraph offices across the street to help send out financial news.

In the late 1880s, there was a pneumatic tube in London running from the Aberdeen fish market to the head post office. It was used to ship fish. The pneumatic system was the fastest way to get the fresh fish to the central location of the post office at the time.

The system in London was so big it was used to ship mail and packages around the city instead of horse carts. Each capsule car could carry up to three tons of freight and speed through the tubes at up to 40 miles per hour!

Around the same time, London, Dublin, and Paris were looking to build systems that could send people around. The systems were too small to be useful for people, but the idea paved the way for modern subways around the world. Ten years later, Alfred Ely Beach tried to build a pneumatic system in New York City in secret. It failed after he couldn’t get permission to extend his system.

 A lot of hospitals use pneumatic tubes as a fast, secure way to send medicine from a central pharmacy. They can also use the system to send samples to labs to help speed up the results and limit the risk of something being lost. X-rays and other results can then be shipped back so doctors and nurses can more quickly treat their patients.

A lot of stores use pneumatic systems to send money back and forth to cash registers as needed. Not only is it faster, but it helps prevent theft.

Manufacturing plants are another place where you can often find pneumatic tube systems. Small parts, like nuts and bolts, can be sent right where they’re needed in a fraction of the time. Notes can be sent around without needing to install expensive electronic systems.

Your credit union drive-through is probably where you’ll see pneumatic tubes the most. Used to make transactions between someone’s car and the teller inside, the tubes offer a few advantages over a drive-through window. For starters, they keep the people inside protected from the weather. If you’re depositing small coins or loose paper, and you drop them, they fall in your car, not on the ground.

You might have heard something about Hyperloop lately. While not solely a pneumatic system, it is taking some of the ideas and scaling them up to make hyper-fast transportation systems. Instead of using a vacuum or pressure to drive the pod it uses some other form of propulsion. However, hyperloops are mostly intended to work in a vacuum, meaning there is no air in the tube. The point of this is to make the vehicle move faster because of reduced resistance.

Have you seen any pneumatic tubes around your town? This technology, while not new, is still an essential part of many industries!


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