Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 5 - The Suction Post

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    ONE great invention draws others in its train. The locomotive necessitated the telegraph, and with the telegraph we have grown dissatisfied with our whole postal system. We can converse with each other at opposite ends of the kingdom, yet a letter will sometimes take half a day journeying from one extremity of the metropolis to the other. Our great nerves and arteries (the telegraphic and railway systems) put the four comers of the earth in speedy communication with each other, considering the hundreds of millions of square miles they serve; but the central heart, London, is a blank in the general system, and the utmost speed with which its distances can be travelled is measured by the pace of a Hansom cab. Three millions of people are naturally dissatisfied with this state of things, and busy brains are hard at work attempting to remedy it. At the present moment, in fact, there is a race to lay down a metropolitan nervous system. If the reader happens to go into the City, he sees above the house-tops and across the river science weaving a vast spider's web from point to point. The sky is gradually becoming laced with telegraph wires, along which messages [-53-] of love, of greed, of commerce, speed unseen. These wires belong to the District Telegraphic Company, and perform the office of putting public offices in communication with each other, of supplying the nervous system between the Docks and the Exchange, carrying the news of the moment and the price of stocks from the counting-house of the merchant to his snuggery far down in the country, hard. beside some railway. But the spider's web is also extending beneath our feet; if we take up the flags, there too we find the fine filaments traversing in their iron sheaths, linking railway station to railway station, and speeding the message under 'the feet of millions from one telegraphic line to another. With all these facilities for forwarding urgent messages between given points, however, the town still wants some rapid augmentation of its ordinary carrying system. We are going to shoot passengers from point to point by means of a subterraneous railway. Shall letters and parcels still toilfully pursue their way, urged by sorry screws and weary postmen? Or shall we not harness another power of Nature to relieve our toil?
    When a lounger on a very hot day sits down under an awning, and goes to work upon his sherry-cobbler, he notes with satisfaction how immediately and how smoothly the liquor glides up the straw upon the application of his lips to it. But the odds are that he never associated with this movement the Post Office or the London Parcels Delivery Company in any manner whatever. Yet, if we are not greatly mistaken, the power at work in that straw is destined to revolutionize the machinery of those very important metropolitan associa-[-54-]tions. There are some people perverse enough to turn the dislikes of others to their own special profit. Now a company has been formed, and is in actual working, to take advantage of a special dislike of Nature. We all know that our great mother abhors a vacuum; but the Pneumatic Despatch Company, on the contrary, very much admires it, inasmuch as they see in it their way to a vast public benefit and profit to themselves.
    For some years the International Telegraph Company have employed this new power to expedite their own business. Thus their chief office at Lothbury has been for some time put in communication with the Stock Exchange and their stations at Cornhill and Mincing Lane, and written messages are sucked through tubes, thus avoiding the necessity of repeating each message. We witnessed the apparatus doing its ordinary work only the other day in the large telegraphic apartment of the company in Telegraph Street, Moorgate Street. Five metal tubes, of from two to three inches in diameter, are seen trained against the wall, and coming to an abrupt termination opposite the seat of the attendant who ministers to them. In connection with their butt-ends other smaller pipes are soldered on at right angles; these lead down to an air-pump below, worked by a small steam-engine. There is another air-pump and engine, of course, at the other end of the pipe, and thus suction is established to and fro through its whole length. Whilst we are looking at the largest pipe we hear a whistle; this is to give notice that a despatch is about to be put into the tube at Mincing Lane, two-thirds of a mile distant. It will be necessary therefore to exhaust the air between the end we [-55-] are watching and that point. A little trap-door — the mouth of the apparatus — is instantly shut, a cock is turned, the air-pump below begins to suck, and in a few seconds you hear a soft thud against the end of the tube — the little door is opened, and a cylinder of gutta-percha encased in flannel, about four inches long, which fits the tube, but loosely, is immediately ejected upon the counter; the cylinder is opened at one end, and there we find the despatch.
    Now it is quite clear that it is only necessary to enlarge the tubes and to employ more powerful engines and airpumps in order to convey a thousand letters and despatches, book parcels, &c., in the same manner. And this the company are forthwith about to do. They propose in their prospectus to unite all the district post-offices in the metropolis with the central office in St. Martin's-le-Grand. We particularly beg the attention of the indignant suburban gentleman who is always writing to the Times respecting the delays which take place in the delivery of district letters, to this scheme. At present a letter is longer going from one of the outer circles of the post-office delivery to one of the inner ones than from London to Brighton; but with the working of the Pneumatic Despatch Company a totally different state of things will obtain. An obvious reason of the present delay is the crowded state of the London thoroughfares, which obstructs the mail-carts In their passage to the central office, or from district to district; another reason is that, from the very nature of things, letters are by the present system only despatched at intervals of two or three hours. But when we have AEolus to do our work the letters will flow towards headquarters for sorting and further distribution incessantly. [-56-] Indeed, the different tubes will practically bring the ten district post-offices of London under one roof.
    At the present moment the contract rate at which the mail-carts go is eight miles per hour. The Pneumatic Company can convey messages at the rate of thirty miles an hour, and this speed can be doubled if necessary. The same system will be ultimately adopted for bringing the mail-bags to and from the railway-stations, and instead of seeing the red mail-carts careering through the streets, we shall know that all our love-letters, lawyers' letters, and despatches of importance, are lying beneath our feet as smoothly and imperceptibly as the fluid flows outwards and inwards from that great pumping machine-the human heart. The spider's web that is being hung over our head has indeed a formidable rival in this web of air-tubes under ground, inasmuch as by the latter we can send our thoughts at length, and with perfect secrecy, and quite as quickly for all practicable purposes, as by the telegraph. The post-office authorities, if they adopt the scheme, of which we have no doubt, will be able to forward letters with a very great increase of despatch at a much smaller cost to itself than ,even at present. A pipe between the Charing Cross post-office and Saint Martin's-le-Grand is about to be laid, so that the public service will very speedily test its capabilities, if further testing indeed be needed.
    If we can suck letters in this manner, between point and point of the City, it will naturally be asked, why not lay down pipes along the railroads, and convey your mails by pneumatic power? But it must be remembered that the exhaustive process cannot be put in operation for any long [-57-] distance without great loss of power, and that it would be difficult to send letters great distances, even with relays of air pumps, much faster than by ordinary mail trains. However, it is impossible to say what may not be eventually done in this direction, but we are certain, from actual experiment carried on for years, that the system is perfectly adapted for this vast metropolis, as regards the postal service, and there is as little doubt that it is quite capable of taking upon itself a parcel-delivery service, — indeed, the size of the articles to be conveyed is only limited by the power of the pumping-engine, and the size of the conducting tube.
    The company are now about to lay down a pipe between the Docks and the Exchange, for the conveyance of samples of merchandise, thus practically bringing the Isle of Dogs into Cornhill; and for all we know, this invention may hereafter be destined to relieve the gorged streets of the metropolis of some of its heavy traffic.
    The projector of the railway system could scarcely have foreseen the extent to which the locomotive would supersede other means of progression, and the principle of suction certainly starts on its career with as much certainty of succeeding as did that scheme. Some time towards the end of the century, we may perchance hear the householder giving directions to have his furniture sucked up to Highgate  — for hills form but little impediment to the new system of traction, — or the coal merchant ordering a waggon load of coals to be shot into the pipe for delivery a dozen miles distant. And this new power, like the trunk of the elephant, is capable of being employed on the most trivial as well as upon the weightiest matters.
    [-58-] At the station of the International Telegraph Company, in Telegraph Street, it acts the part of messenger between the different parts of the establishment. The pipes wind about from room to room, sufficient curve being maintained in them for the passage of the little travelling cylinder which contains the message, and small packages, and written communications traverse almost as quickly in all directions as does the human voice in the guttapercha tubing, to which, in fact, it is the appropriate addendum.
    In all large establishments, such as hotels and public offices, the application of the invention will be invaluable; and from its fetching and, carrying capabilities, it may well be nick-named the tubular "Page."
    That we have been recording the birth of an invention destined to play a great part in the world, we have, as guarantees, the names of the well-known engineers, Messrs. Rammell and Latimer Clarke, and among the directors that of Mr. W. H. Smith, whose establishment in the Strand supplements the Post-office in the distribution of newspapers throughout the country. In making our lowest bow to this new slave of the lamp that has been enlisted in our service, we may observe that, unlike steam, it cannot at any time become our master, or bring disaster where it was only intended to serve.