The Tube Went Where…?

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This small brass cylinder, with a sliding hatch closure, transported money within the G. Fox & Co. department store in Hartford using the store’s pneumatic tube transport system. 2007.42.1

I was in the inside drive-thru lane at a Walgreens drug store recently and was watching a customer in the outside lane retrieve her prescription via a motorized “capsule” that traveled to and from the pharmacy. This got me to thinking about those wonderful pneumatic tube transport systems that were and in some cases still are used in large businesses, factories, banks, and department stores. You know (or at least those of a certain age know) the ones I mean, whereby a cylindrical capsule containing money or small merchandise items magically appears or disappears through a metallic tube, often with a satisfying hissing “thwunk” sound.

Well, since CHS’s collections has so many different objects I did some quick checking and learned that we in fact have one of those cylindrical capsules! Manufactured by the Lamson Engineering Company in London, our tube was used to transport money from a G. Fox & Co. sales desk to a centralized accounts receivable room in a distant part of the Hartford department store’s eleven-story building. Photographs of large pneumatic tube systems remind one of a mechanical octopus with long steel tentacles—or (I’m serious) in some ways the interior of the TARDIS time machine on the BBC’s Dr. Who television series. Don’t believe me? Well, have a look at the photo of the cash department at G. Fox, probably dating to the early 1920s. Get a load of all those tubes bringing cash to be processed, with change and receipts making the return trip to the sales clerk and, ultimately, the customer. There is almost a steampunk feel to the appearance of the tubes in the scene!

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An extensive pneumatic tube transport system in the G. Fox & Co. department store linked sales counters with a centralized cash room. Inbound cash, checks and charges would be processed here and change and receipts would be quickly returned to customers through outbound tubes. This photograph dates to about 1920, shortly after G. Fox opened its new store in downtown Hartford. 2007.24.82.5

The technology for today’s pneumatic transport systems actually dates to the 19th century, when steam-powered air pumps were developed to provide the propulsion. Some large systems linked adjacent factory buildings, moving messages and even small parts between different departments. And get this, some visionaries even proposed subway systems employing this technology; but the airflow such large systems would require outstripped the capacity of existing technology. I can feel my ears popping already…

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