Life before email: A look back at the 'vacuum post'

Life before email: A look back at the 'vacuum post'

Summary: Germany's high-speed vacuum-post system used a form of packet-switching almost a century before the internet was conceived. ZDNet UK went beneath the streets of Berlin to find the last remnants of this ground-breaking technology


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  • Long before the delivery of the first email in 1971, while most of the world was happy to wait around for snail mail, the Germans were busy blasting letters to each other at high speeds.

    The tubular post, or pneumatic telegraph, was a Victorian invention that conveyed letters rapidly over short distances. It was once popular in shops — it survived in some London stores late into the 20th century — for conveying bills, memos and money from floor to floor quickly and securely.

    But Germany took this technology a stage further by linking networks across the country so post could be sent speedily backwards and forwards. At first coaches and then trains made up gaps in the network.

    ZDNet UK, courtesy of AMD, recently paid a visit to examine the remnants of Berlin's vacuum post system. Berlin's Röhrenpost or Rohrpost started sending letters on 1 December, 1876. London, Paris and New York also had their own systems.

    The basic element of the vacuum post — part of what was then the Royal Post Office, explained our guide — was a tube that contained a powerful vacuum driven by pumps. A metal container placed in one end of the tube was literally sucked to its destination.

    Shown here is a typical container after it has arrived at its destination.

  • Shown here are the high-pressure pipes that drive the vacuum post. A build-up of pressure is needed to send message containers through the system.

    The obvious gap between the pipes, shown in the image above, marks the consequences of World War II. In the Cold War period, when Germany was split in two, so was the vacuum post. The service continued with the post heading off to the different parts of divided Berlin. According to our guide for the day, making an obvious gap between the East and West Berlin tubes helped reduce mistakes.

Topics: Broadband, Tech Industry


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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  • Mail is still blowing in the wind....

    My brother's first job was as a human back-up for an internal pneumatic mail system, and banks and hospitals still use "Lamson tubes".

    There's an article here about the technology
    and a company here that makes the kit

    The comparison with data networking isn't bonkers either. The cylinders would have machine-readable routing information on them, so mechanical devices could redirect them to the right destination.

    Now if you want to talk crazy technology, how about vacuum driven Atmospheric Railways?
  • and in supermarkets

    I've seen this in use quite recently for sucking away tubes of excess cash (notes) in supermarket tills.
  • Next time I go to Tesco

    ... I'm taking a Hoover and a pipe wrench.