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“I will be over for a coffee”, “Birthday party tonight at our place”, “Sorry, but have to cancel tonight’s meeting” – How was it possible to relay such messages in 1900, and in a way that wouldn’t take days or delay them unnecessarily?
Without modern post systems or modern communication tools like the telephone, cell, or even the internet?
Even then, engineers and developers were working on systems to deliver short messages or goods as fast as possible.
That led to the invention of the pneumatic tube system in the mid-19th century. With that system it was possible to send short messages via air pressure fast from A to B.
On this 150 year anniversary we want to share some insights into this exciting technology and its history.
The origin of pneumatic tube systems
On the 18. November 1865 the first system of this kind went into operation, connecting the Berlin main telegraph office with the Berlin stock exchange. That way, telegraphs from all over the world could be forwarded fast and bankers would always have the latest news.
150 years ago, in 1868, Berlin had 18 km of tubes.
From then on, tube systems were used beyond the stock exchange.
And on the 1. September 1876, a public tube system went into operation. By then, the system spanned around 25.9 km, included the main telegraph office and 14 post offices and mail could be delivered hourly.
The speed of that system was unbeatable at the time!
150 years pneumatic tubes anniversary – exciting facts
Procedure: Post offices, where letters or postcards could be put into specific slots or handed over at a counter, were located between the pneumatic tube stations. From 7am to 9pm, the carriers would leave the station every 15 minutes.
This required a complicated schedule as there was only one tube for each direction.
Sent messages: When the tube system started, in 1876, an incredible 1,324,899 deliveries were made and until 1883 this number even doubled.
Standard size: In order to fit letters, postcards, etc. into the carriers, certain standards had to be introduced: The maximum size for mail was 10.5 x 14.8 cm, the paper used had to be thin and pink and the weight maximum was 20 grams.
Costs: Around 1900, the price for a postcard was 24 pfennigs (German cents) and for a letter 30 pfennigs.
Dimension of the network: in 1900 the tube network included 48 post offices, spanned 121km and 7million deliveries were made per year; in 1919 the network spanned 167 km with around 26 million deliveries.
The postman: Important messenger
Once letters and postcards came through the tube, postmen took over and delivered the mail to the recipients. Tube systems then were seen as express delivery, the Berlin post office guaranteed a delivery within two hours!
Letters were stamped a total of 11 times to give proof of the fast delivery.
This meant the postmen had to make their tours 11 times a day, between 7:15 am and 8 pm.
On Sundays there were five delivery tours.
In 1884, 900 postmen went on the first tour, covering 800 streets with 18,310 houses and 1.2 million residents.
For the other tours, only 500-600 postmen were needed.
The tube system in the 21st century
This shows that the postcard was really one of the first social communication media, the first version of WhatsApp, so to say. The prime time of the tube system started to slowly decline in the 1920s, one of the reasons was the introduction of the direct-dial telephone. In WW2 many post offices were destroyed, but some routes were reconstructed and used, in East- as well as in West Berlin.
Today, tube systems are not used for fast message delivery anymore, but large hospitals are still using these systems and they are vital there.