The Revival of the Pneumatic Tube: The Future of Human Transport?


Try to imagine a world of pipes whooshing, long tubes twisting through buildings and shooting capsules at high speeds. Now imagine being the cargo of those capsules. This is the future of transportation.

This cutting edge idea, one straight from the animated comedy Futurama, is actually 150-year-old technology. The pneumatic tube emerged from the steam-powered innovation of the 19th century. A container holding mail or small packages could be sent flying through the network of tubes connecting buildings around the city.

The pneumatic tube was a cheap, fast, and reliable mode of communication. The tube was so effective that one tube operator was equivalent to 14 telegraph operators. The tube containers consisted of a small plastic cylinder with rubber rings around the ends to help the containers turn around corners. Steam built up pressure and pushed the containers down and through tubes.

Now, one man, entrepreneur Dirk Ahlborn and his company Hyperloop are working to create the first ever human transporting tube. The basis of the tube is a black, windowless capsule resembling a bullet that sucks air from the front of the capsule and shoots it out the back at speeds up to 760 MPH. This speed would allow passengers to travel three times faster than in the average plane. The capsule will either be magnetically suspended or float using hovercraft technology.

The Hyperloop plan was originally devised by entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2012. It was the German-born entrepreneur Ahlborn who followed through with the plan in 2014 and established Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Other companies have since followed suit with the hyperloop idea. In Quay Valley, California, Ahlborn and his team are working on a five mile trial line. They hope to test human passengers by 2018. A rival team is also constructing a similar prototype in Los Angeles.

The pneumatic tube of the nineteenth century has inspired entrepreneurs to think more creatively about transportation of humans. These ideas could spark revolutionary forms of travel.

[Source: Smithsonian Magazine]

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