PNEUMATIC POST

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This is a chapter from "The Pneumatic Post in Vienna", published on CD by the APS. It discusses the concept of Pneumatic Post and its development in some European countries

In the 19th century, the use of air pressure as a source of power became widespread in Europe. It had certain theoretical advantages: the tubes containing it would not need to be protected against cold, as the air would neither condense nor freeze; furthermore, should the air escape, it would be inoffensive. Practice was not quite as easy! The air around us contains water vapour, which when compressed can condense at ambient temperature especially in the winter; the compressors frequently introduce oil vapours; and accidentally- or maliciously-induced ingress of compressed air to the human body produces "air embolisms" which can be fatal. Nevertheless, good engineering, sufficient investment, properly trained staff, and good management can overcome such difficulties.

In its simplest form a Pneumatic system consists of a single tube linking two points or "stations". Inside this tube, closely fitting cylindrical containers are either blown along by compressed air or drawn along by a vacuum, and by placing messages inside the containers, a self-contained communications system is produced. These can still be found in department stores, taking cash to the cash office and bringing back receipts and change. One of the first postal implementations was in 1853 when J. Latimer Clark constructed a pneumatic tube system in Britain, designed initially to carry messages along the 220 yards between the London Stock Exchange and the offices of the Electric and International Telegraph Company where he was employed. This tube has been variously reported as having a diameter of 1½ or 3 inches, and was later extended as far as Charing Cross. Originally the containers holding the messages were driven forward by lowering the air pressure in front of them, but Cromwell F. Varley, Clark’s assistant, improved matters a few years later when he used compressed air to push them through. [While you cannot suck out more air than all-of-it, in a pneumatic tube system air can be compressed over 20-fold, producing a driving force 20 times greater than the best possible vacuum, before practical limits are reached such as the cost of the pipes and stopping the containers when they arrive.]

The Pneumatic Despatch Company (Limited) was founded in 1859, and in 1863 issued a Prospectus to attract new investors. The Duke of Buckingham and Chandos was Chairman, and Latimer Clark one of the chief Engineers. The Prospectus stated that "the Directors having satisfied themselves and the Shareholders of the complete mechanical success of the Company's system of transmission … determined on laying down a permanent tube of thirty inches gauge between Euston Station and the North Western District Post Office, Eversholt Street. This tube, with the stations, machinery, and appliances, is now completed, and is found to work most efficiently; and the Post Office authorities have notified their readiness to make an immediate trial of it for the transmission of mail bags between those points."

The "thirty inches gauge" must have been that of the rails, not the pipe's diameter, as it is described in 'Stamp Collecting' (4th November 1960 p249) and illustrated elsewhere as being "4 foot high by 4½ foot wide … the entrance to each tube was closed by two iron doors inclined at an angle to each other so as to resist air pressure and were kept closed by iron bolts. After the cars were directed into the tube the doors were closed and bolted and pressure turned on so as to propel the cars forward. The return journey was effected by rarefying the air in front of the cars. When the cars reached their destination the wheels pressed a treadle which released the bolts and allowed the doors to swing open under the influence of heavy weights."

Thus emboldened, the Pneumatic Despatch Company planned to install a 5 mile line of 48-inch tube connecting the Railway Stations at Camden Town, Euston, and Charing Cross with High Holborn, Smithfield Market, Gresham Street, Covent Garden Market, and the General Post Office. Shareholders were assured of an annual return of 10% net. This seems not to have been built, and the 30 inch tube was closed down on 31 October 1874 because of insuperable problems: "...[the door-opening] mechanism was not foolproof, however, and occasionally failed to operate properly, the doors remaining shut and the impact of the cars causing damage..." Also they found it increasingly difficult to keep the doors airtight, even after the engine power had been increased to six times the original, and the system had to be abandoned.

The French were also early starters, and a pneumatic post system was introduced in Paris in 1866. The Paris tubes were not available to the general public until 1879. The system was progressively converted from one-tube-one-way to double tubes from 1888, and in 1931 the cylinders were equipped with conducting bands which actuated an automatic switching system, instead of every cylinder having to be examined at each office it passed.

Meanwhile, in 1799 the Austrian Matthias Zagizek submitted a plan to the Emperor Francis II, "to provide by means of a pipe a method for speedy correspondence"; he "requested the highest support for this project". This was of course rejected immediately. Nor did it impress the authorities that Josef Ritter von Blum had held since 1835 a patent for an "Eilkorrespondenz-bahn" [express letter railway] which was in use both in Paris (since 1867) and Berlin (1865). An early reference to the use of air as a means of transmitting postal material is to be found in an article which appeared in the Leipzig "Illustrierte Zeitung" on the 9th November 1861, where the Bohemian-born Josef Ressel, better known and commemorated as the inventor of the screw for ship propulsion, is described as "der Erfinder der atmosphärischen Briefpost". In 1844 he suggested to the k.k. Department of Commerce the installation of a "pneumatic post". This was equally in vain; in Austria at that time any suggestions for any changes whatsoever fell foul of two objections: (i) they might involve the government in expenditure; (ii) they implied that the existing arrangements were other than perfect. Of course, no modern government would have such an attitude.

As the new technology seemed to function well abroad, interest grew in Austria for the building of a pneumatic postal system in Vienna, on the French model. Credit for the eventual construction of the Vienna Pneumatic Post System goes to Franz Felbinger. Born at Hainburg in Lower Austria on the 8th July 1844, he studied at the Vienna Polytechnic and subsequently went to the U.S.A. where he worked as an engineer. Returning to Austria in 1872, Felbinger first undertook the construction of a funicular up the Leopoldsberg to the west of Vienna; he then built the Vienna pneumatic post, after which he went on to install similar systems in Munich and Hamburg. In later years Felbinger turned his attention to painting, studying at Brunn and Munich, and died at Trebitsch on the 15th July 1906.

For more than a century and a half before Felbinger’s arrival on the Viennese scene, the city had been surrounded with an inner and outer fortification system, consisting of walls, a rampart, and a fosse. However, following an imperial decree in 1857, these fortifications were gradually removed, their place being taken by the splendid Ring-Strasse surrounding the Old Town. Felbinger was thus active at a time of major redevelopment for Vienna; not only was access to the inner City made easier but many of the stately buildings which are now the city’s pride were erected.

As the Capital City of an Empire, where commerce was booming following the Settlement with Hungary, efficient communications were of the utmost importance, both within Vienna itself and with the major centres many hundreds of miles away. At this time speedy communication was confined to the telegraph, introduced from 1845 (the first telephone system in Vienna was opened in 1881 with 154 subscribers), and it was intended that the Vienna Pneumatic Post system would be used to send written telegraph messages from outlying post offices to the Central Telegraph Office for onward transmission by wire. This would solve the problems of the expansion of Vienna (it could take a messenger on foot an hour to go from the Central Telegraph Office to the boundaries) and of the expansion of telegram traffic as trade increased. It would also avoid the State paying the Private Telegraph Company (founded in 1869) 10kr for each item handed to it for delivery. There may have been a legal dispute over this, since in 1895 the Vienna Private Telegraph Company was nationalised!

In 1872 a limited company applied for a concession for the establishment of "a pneumatic postal system". The negotiations extended for so long that the financial crash after the Viennese World Fair of 1873 seemed likely to endanger the project. Money was however found, and in January 1874 the k.k. Department of Commerce formally agreed to the establishment of a City Pneumatic Postal Service in Vienna. The Viennese Pneumatic Post was opened to the public on the 1st March 1875, having cost 364,700 gulden (equivalent to £30,418 then: almost £3 million at 2014 prices) including all the machines, apparatus, pneumatic receivers and the land at Gumpendorf for a second machine house.

The "Ordinances for the Austrian Telegraph Offices No. 3 of 19th March 1875" announced the "starting of the pneumatic pipe system and introduction of pneumatic letters in Vienna with effect from 1st March of this year". Actually, the system had been commissioned on the 15th February but used only for telegrams as a proving trial. Post and Telegraphy were at that time under separate administration [Post took over Telegraphy in 1883], and the reason for assigning the new service to the telegraph is clear from the announcement: the new service was primarily for the expedition of telegrams or Depesche [Depesche is from the French "dépèche" meaning official or urgent news: there is an old Austrian verb "depeschieren" meaning "to telegraph"], for which the telegraph service had long looked for a fast means of transport. To use the new system to capacity, it would also accept written communications "for which the sender and addressee are found within the Linienwälle of Vienna" - ie, for those districts within today’s "Gürtel".

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