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

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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1 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

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.

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2 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

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.

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3 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

The post containers finish their trip by falling into the trap, shown here. These traps had to be well padded because the post containers were made of metal and could arrive at high speeds.

These characteristics also meant there was a good chance operators would hear them when they arrived.

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4 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

Shown here is one of the many pumps that would have been used to compress the air and build up pressure for the vacuum post. This piece of machinery was built in Germany by Siemens.

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5 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

This image shows a similar piece of machinery to that shown on page 4. But if it looks a little cruder, it could be because it was manufactured in East Germany and at the time the vacuum-post system was in the hands of the East German authorities.

According to our guide, the Siemens-manufactured equipment was working until the system ceased operating, while the East German machines proved less reliable.

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6 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

The pumps for the pressurised air generated a fair amount of power, although it is difficult to tell exactly how much from this old indicator. However, our guide informed us that the air was moving at 15 metres a second.

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7 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

After World War II the system continued to function and, according our guide, it was not until the 1970s that it fell into complete disuse. This section shows part of the system as it has remained since the end of its operational life.

According to the guide, work started on the system in the 1870s and remained in operation until the 1970s. How much of it was electric-powered in its early years is unclear, but for much of its life it worked as shown here.

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8 of 8 Colin Barker/ZDNet

Now Berlin's vacuum post lies disused. 31 November this year marks its last official day, and the old system is now in the hands of developers. The entire area around the old post office is to be redeveloped into offices and housing.

Our guide told us the future of these few remaining parts of the infrastructure is in doubt, although volunteers are ready to help recreate the vacuum post in all its former glory.

While most people will not remember the vacuum post, it does have its place in history. The principle of the system was that a message was received as a packet of information and then sent to another point. From this second point, it could be delivered to its final address or sent on to another post office to continue its journey. In that way a packet could travel a considerable distance across Germany.

The principle of transmitting a packet of information from point to point to delivery is the same one that underlies the internet today. In that sense, the vacuum post was the world's first internet.

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