December 16, 2008
On the intertubes c. 1908

The Dec. 16, 1908 NYT reports on what might have been a close call: a proposal for the U.S. government to purchase, install and operate pneumatic tubes for the purpose of delivering mail and other goods:

"That it is not feasible and desirable at the present time for the Government to purchase, to install, or to operate pneumatic tubes," is one of the most important conclusions reached by a commission appointed by the Postmaster General to inquire into the feasibility and desirability of the purchase and operation by the Government of pneumatic tubes in the cities where the service is now installed...

The pneumatic tube service is in operation at present in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Brooklyn...

The report commends the service as an important auxiliary for the rapid transmission of first-class mail and special delivery mail. It however, adds these conclusions:

That pneumatic tube service appears to be still in an experimental condition, although progress has been made toward the development of a fixed standard of machinery;
That with the above reservation the regularity and efficiency of the tube service are commendable.
No monopoly likes competition, so it is understandable (in one sense) that the government would look into "purchasing" the existing pneumatic tube services in order to stave off competition. The commission suggests putting off the decision for "five or six years," perhaps to see what is going to happen with the technology and the overall market for pneumatic tubes?

According to this entry in Wikipedia the number of cities that actually operated a large-scale pneumatic tube system was rather low, thus it seems that the technology never really took off. This might not be surprising given that technology in the early 1900s was changing rapidly - wireless, manned flight, the automobile, and advancements in wired communications - much like our technological revolution in the past fifteen years or so.

One wonders what our communication system would be like if the government had undertaken a large scale, nation-wide, pneumatic tube system for mail delivery. It seems there was at least a small possibility that we might actually have had a system of "intertubes."

Posted by Craig Depken at 11:26 AM in Science

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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