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May 4, 2012

Historical Echoes: Pneumatic Tubes and Banking

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

Pneumatic tubes—a system in which cylinder-shaped containers (that could contain messages, money, small objects, and even food) are propelled through a network of tubes via compressed air or partial vacuum—are a relatively old technology. (Pneumatic tubes were patented in the United States in 1940, with earlier forms existing prior to this date). But when used in innovative ways in the past, they were viewed as futuristic. What may come to mind first is the use of pneumatic tubes in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) to transport messages and newspapers. The 1954 film of the book depicts the use of the technology (starting three minutes into this clip).

In Bill Bryson’s homage to growing up in the 1950s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir, he describes the use of pneumatic tubes in a department store:

Every commercial enterprise had something distinctive to commend it. The New Utica department store downtown had pneumatic tubes rising from each cash register. The cash from your purchase was placed in a cylinder, then inserted in the tubes and fired—like a torpedo—to a central collection point, such was the urgency to get the money counted and back into the economy. A visit to the New Utica was like a trip to a future century.

What does this have to do with banks? According to Kent Mustoe, an engineering student and member of a group called the Pneumanics (a team of six students in the L05 section of ECE4007, Georgia Tech’s senior design course for electrical engineers), banking is one of the industries with the longest running use of this technology. He states in his paper, &#8220Pneumatic Transport System Uses and Advances&#8221:

The banking industry is one of the longest running users of a pneumatic transport system. Their method of transportation consists of a single input, single output tube system that connects the bank teller from inside the bank to the customer at an outside terminal . . . This is one of the most practical uses of a pneumatic system due to the fact that the distance between the two end ports is so short. Also the material of the objects being moved is usually paper, which is light weight . . .

Many videos about pneumatic tubes in drive-thru banking feature cars crashing into bank structures, but there is also a short video that features a Canadian woman who is delighted to use the bank drive-through.

According to an article in Adweek in 2010, Citadel Bank was running ads featuring a pneumatic tube. However, instead of cash, the tube carried rate announcements and customer inquiries, which were received and read by a nerdy spokesman named Lewis.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

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