Hyperloop was inspired 100 years ago by pneumatic tubes (and a cat)

Claudine Zap
CompassAugust 15, 2013

Elon Musk's futuristic vision of a Hyperloop transportation system seems to be inspired from the past. About 100 years ago, large cities around the world used a system of pneumatic tubes to send and receive mail (not people).

Once, even a cat was sent through a canister. More on that in a moment.

Musk, according to the Daily Mail, admitted on Monday that his supertube plan to shoot passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles at 800 mph was a direct descendant of the pneumatic mail system.

Mail was a slow enterprise before email and, well, automobiles were available to handle speedier delivery. So many cities constructed high-tech pneumatic mail systems underground.

"A cartridge containing small packages or telegrams would be loaded into an airtight tube," a description from the Postal Museum states. "It would then be propelled by compressed air pushing the cartridge to the end of the tube; or alternatively, it would be propelled by means of suction that created a partial vacuum in the tube (depending on its destination)."

Cities around the United States, such as Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, and Philadelphia, experimented with the superfast system, but New York had the largest, longest, and most successful pneumatic tube infrastructure just below the streets of the city at the turn of the last century.

Sewage and gas lines posed problems for adding the tubes. And the subterranean system was also expensive. It was owned and built by private companies, meaning that the U.S. Postal Service had to rent the tubes and pay for labor.

But in 1897, New York was willing to pony up the money in return for the speedy delivery — 35 mph across the transom. Distances that took the mail 40 minutes by wagon took only seven minutes by tube. The tubes helped about 30 percent of New York's mail, as many as 95,000 letters a day, zip around 27 miles of tubes throughout Manhattan and over the Brooklyn Bridge.

As part of a demonstration to inaugurate the high-tech mail delivery, pranksters stuffed a live black cat into one of the tubes to send over to the General Post Office in New York.

As described by an eyewitness , Howard Wallace Connelly, in his 1931 self-published autobiography, "Fifty-Six Years In The New York Post Office — A Human Interest Story of Real Happenings in the Postal Service":

"From the second tube, a cat was taken. How it could live after being shot at terrific speed from Station P in the Produce Exchange Building, making several turns before reaching Broadway and Park Row, I cannot conceive, but it did. It seemed to be dazed for a minute or two but started to run and was quickly secured and placed in a basket that had been provided for that purpose."

The mail delivery — with letters and not cats — continued until 1953, when it was rendered obsolete by motorized mail wagons and eventually mail trucks.