How Do Pneumatic Tubes Work?

May 14, 2020

The internet has been referred to as a series of tubes. However, long before emails, people transmitted messages quickly across cities through a network of pneumatic tubes. Pneumatic tubes are pipelines that use air pressure to propel canisters from point A to point B. You may still notice this at drive-thru windows of banks and pharmacies.

History of Pneumatic Tubes

The idea of pressurized gas to produce mechanical motion goes back to a Greek mathematician called the hero of Alexandria. With that said, the first practical application of the concept sent mail and telegrams through London starting in the 1850s. By 1886, London had 34 miles of mail tubes underneath the city transmitting 32,000 messages a day and up to 51 miles per hour.

Cities such as New York, Boston, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna had similar systems by the turn of the century. Although, the World Wars and the growing automobile industry shut most of them down by the 1950s. The technology is still in use today to transport materials through manufacturing plants, hospitals, and bank deposit slips.

How do Pneumatic Tubes Work?

Pneumatic tube systems start with an airtight tube with sealable hatches at either end. Then, whatever needs to be transported gets inserted into a canister that’s smaller than the tube. Therefore, the flexible skirts on either end can form to the interior edges of the tube. Then, you put your things in the canister and press the go button.

Pneumatic tubes are fast, easy-to-use, and the design of them is simple. For example, let’s say, you worked in an office building before email and texting were a thing. Then, you wanted to send some important paperwork or a secret message to your friend who works in another part of the building. Instead of making the trip to their office, you seal up your message in an airtight tube and put it at your end of the pneumatic tube, which is called the sending station.

Now, imagine this tube like a giant S-shape. In the beginning, the air pressure is the same throughout the entire tube, and there is a bunch of air molecules moving around, pushing on the canister in the same amount in every direction. However, when you push the “go” button, then the air pressure changes entirely. At the receiving station of your friend’s office, a fan activates, and it starts sucking the air out of your friend’s side of the pneumatic tube and creates a partial vacuum. At this point, there’s not much air in the tube pushing down on the top of the canister. However, there is a vast amount of air molecules at your receiving station, still providing pressure up from the bottom of the pneumatic tube.

This complexity of air pressure produces powerful air pressure that pushes the pneumatic canister through its tube. Then, in just a few seconds, the tube will reach its destination at the other receiving station, which will allow your friend to read your message. In the past, pneumatic tubes have worked well enough for simple mail delivery; however, they weren’t perfect.

One of the issues is that you needed to build a new tube for every place you wanted to send something. Eventually, these pneumatic networks became very complicated with switches and trap doors to adjust the route of each canister, which could lead to more possibilities for mistakes and collisions.

Then, if you wanted to send more packages farther, cars just became more efficient than building and operating large pneumatic tube networks. So, as the industrial age grew, pneumatic tubes were mostly left in the past.

In Summary

Complex pneumatic systems may have dozens of branching tubes containing switches and transfer points that house extra fans. However, by using computer systems to regulate the fans carefully, and thus, the air pressure, even delicate lab samples can arrive safely. Hopefully, this blog has educated you on the topic of pneumatic tubes and how they are integrated into today’s society. If you are looking for a pneumatic tube system for sale, contact WSP for all of your hospital transport technology needs.

How Do Pneumatic Tubes Work? was last modified: by

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