beanz Magazine

The Victorian Internet

tablexxnx on Flickr

Learn about some of the ways people use to communicate before the internet!

African Talking Drum (Dare Adegbaju)
Hausa Talking Drum (African Studies Library Boston University)
Carrier pigeons (O Suave Gigante)
Pigeon message carrier (Carl Paulaner Hefe-weizen)
Pigeons at NJ Naval Air Station (Kibbe Museum)

Throughout history people have developed creative ways of sending messages as quickly as possible. Simple messages/warnings could be tied to pigeon’s legs, sent over a distance with smoke signals, and even via sound though “talking drums” in parts of Africa. But for most of history, most messages were carried by foot or horseback and were slow to get from the sender to the receiver.

In the late 1700s in France, abbe Jean-Antonine wondered whether or not it would be possible to send electrical signals over a wire more quickly than other types of signals were being sent. But he did not know how fast electricity traveled. To find out he lined up around 200 monks spread over approximately 1 mile, all holding an iron wire. And then he sent a low voltage current down the wire. When all the monks reacted to the light shock at seemingly the same instant, he realized that electricity did indeed travel much faster than any current message-delivery system.

Soon after, people began experimenting to devise message-sending systems based on electricity. Applying bursts of electricity to communicate human language was a tough problem to solve. However within a few decades a rudimentary understanding of how messages might be able to travel electrically along wire began to emerge. By 1850 messages were often encoded using the Morse code and sent through a telegraph system. Sending encoded messages along a wire was many times faster than previous methods of communication. It was so fast in fact, that as the system advanced, those on the receiving end often could not translate the dots and dashes of the Morse code back into standard language fast enough to keep up.

In London this became quite a headache. Approximately half of all telegraph messages in the city were being sent between just two offices: the stock exchange branch office and the central telegraph agency. The volume of messages sent between these offices created long backups in a business where information is extremely time sensitive.

It so happened that these two offices were only 200 meters away from one another (just over one tenth of a mile). Running messages between the offices by foot was possible, and often faster than waiting for them to be translated from Morse code back into English, but still not fast enough to meet demand. When no one could find a faster method to send messages locally at a satisfactory speed, a new system was designed.

This system was composed of tubes, mostly running underground, between the central telegraph agency and the stock exchange branch office. Messages were placed in cylindrical containers that were dropped into the tubes. They were “sucked” through the tubes in a manner similar to how a vacuum sucks up dirt. However, this vacuum was created by steam-powered engines (which were eventually replaced by compressed air) and allowed the cylindrical containers to travel at over 25 feet per second, over the entire 300 meters between the telegraph agency and the stock exchange.

The system relied on a branch of science known as pneumatics (new-mat-ics). Pneumatics is the study of the mechanical properties of air and other gasses. Reducing the amount of air on one end of a tube creates a sucking force powerful enough to “pull” objects through the tubes at relatively high speeds. Once the people of London were able to quickly transport messages between the telegraph office and the stock exchange office, people elsewhere started applying the same concept to transporting mail in cities across Europe including Berlin, Paris, Prague, Dublin, and Rome as well as in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. The network of tubes running underground and within buildings across these cities and others formed what is sometimes known as the Victorian internet.

Pneumatic system in Chicago (credit to Boston Public Library)
BASF internal pneumatic postal system, 1914 (credit to BASF Postal Service)

From the mid 1800s through the mid 1900s pneumatic systems in these cities worked wonders delivering messages (and other objects) quickly over relatively short distances. For approximately 100 years they carried tens of thousands of messages through hundreds of miles of winding tubes more efficiently than most other message-delivery systems of the day. In fact, the New York City system was in use until 1953, the pneumatic system in Prague ran until it was damaged by flooding in 2002, and up until 2011 there was even a pneumatic system in place to deliver orders at McDonalds in Edina Minnesota. To this day, the Stanford University medical hospital continues to use a pneumatic tube system (composed of 4 miles of tubes!) to send lab samples across the medical center.

What became of the bulk of the pneumatic systems used to send messages across cities? In most cases the tubes still remain, largely underground and hidden within walls. However, like most physical systems, they began to wear out and needed frequent repair. This repair came with a high price tag. As mail delivery trucks grew increasingly commonplace it became cheaper to drive messages from one location to another than to continue repairing and replacing tubes in the pneumatic system.

Today, a good portion of the messages that were once carried by delivery truck are now transported through even faster systems: email and text. In the case of email, messages pass through routers, servers, and fiber optic cables. Text messages travel through radio waves, going from cell tower to cell tower until reaching the designated receiver. As we all know, these messages not only travel quickly within a city but they can be received almost anywhere in the world within a few seconds.

We can thank developments in a range of sciences for our ability to quickly send messages both within cities and across the world. Pneumatics and incredible feats of mechanical engineering brought us the Victorian internet, the invention of the internal combustion engine enabled mail to be delivered by automobile, and finally developments in information science, electronics, and computer science brought us the internet that we use today.

Although our current delivery systems may seem impressive compared to those of the past, the study of delivery systems is not yet complete. Every 5 to 10 years a new generation of mobile networks is rolled out (5g was first deployed in 2019) and tremendous efforts are currently being made to improve package delivery systems (drones, robots, and even underground pipes!).

Think for a moment about how you send and receive messages and packages. What could be done to improve upon these systems in the future? Creative answers to these questions will be used to build even better delivery systems for the next generation.

Fiber optic cables (MTA Construction and Development Mega Projects)
Drone Package Delivery (routexl)

Learn More

The Victorian Internet

Pneumatics in New York City

How pneumatic transportation works

Pneumatics in Prague

Pneumatics in the library

Stanford University Hospital

USPS History

Ancient delivery systems

Freight pipelines (The Mole)

Future Delivery Systems

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