What the Heck is a Pneumatic Tube?: Background information when reading The Death-Defying Pepper Roux

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The Death-Defying Pepper Roux

by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2010, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2012, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tamara Smith

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
What the Heck is a Pneumatic Tube?

Print Review

One of the hats that Pepper wears is that of a meat slicer in the Marseille Department Store. There are no cash registers in the store. Instead, whenever a customer pays for something, the money is placed in a canister, which is inserted into a tube, and then the canister is shot by compressed air through a maze of tubing and lands at a cashier's cubicle, where the cashier takes the money, makes change, and sends the canister whizzing back to the customer.

What great fun! Pepper spends much of his time after-hours in the department store, sending canisters sailing overhead through the tubes like little rocket ships. But what are these devices, exactly?

They are, exactly, pneumatic tubes.

Pneumatic tubes are part of a group of tools and instruments called pneumatic devices, which use compressed air to make something move. The idea of pneumatic tube transport (or capsule pipeline) was invented in 1806 by Phineas Balk, but was only seen as a spectacular invention until the actual capsule was invented in 1836. They were then used for transporting telegraphs from a central telegraph center to nearby buildings. Transporting small objects such as telegraphs and money was, and still is, the most common use for pneumatic tubes, but there was a time in the early 1800s when people thought they would be able to transport heavy freight. There was even talk of creating elaborate tubing systems that could transport people!

The first documented pneumatic tube intended to transport people was patented in 1840 by Samuel Clegg and Jacob Selvan; it describes a vehicle on wheels that was placed on a track within a tube. In 1870, Alfred Beach unveiled a demonstration subway in New York that ran from the basement of a clothing store at Broadway 300 feet on a curve to Warren St. The "Beach Pneumatic Transit" ran until 1873. Further expansion was foiled by lack of political support and financing, its death knell being the Panic of 1873 which heralded in a 5 year financial depression. The first pneumatic tube used in a department store, just like the one in The Death-Defying Pepper Roux, was patented by D. Brown in 1875.

Most commonly, pneumatic tubes are used at drive-through banks. They are also found in hospitals to deliver specimens, drugs and documents, factories to deliver parts, and stores, of course, to deliver money. Some unique pneumatic tube systems are in the Denver International airport, the original NASA Mission Control Center, and at a McDonalds in Minnesota which send food shooting through tubes to its buyers in a parking lot a distance away. Talk about fast food!

Image above: Central Telegraph Office of the General Post Office in London, 1932

Article by Tamara Smith

This article was originally published in March 2010, and has been updated for the May 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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