Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Pneumatic tubes: technological innovation and politics in Shepherd-era Washington DC

Pneumatic tubes: technological innovation and politics in Shepherd-era Washington DC

By Matthew B. Gilmore*

Deep in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution is a folder labeled “Pneumatic tubes” containing just a few curious documents — three letters to Professor Joseph Henry, one from Columbus Delano dated May 16, 1873; a letter from Gen. O.E. Babcock (on Executive Mansion letterhead) dated May 22, 1873; and a letter from Albert Brisbane dated May 25, 1873. Accompanying the three letters is a folded-up prospectus on which has been written “Brisbane’s Pneumatic Tubes.” The actual document title is “New system of transportation by means of hollow spheres, carrying their loads inside and moving in pneumatic tubes.” Herein lies a tale of technology, money, and politics in the era of Governor Alexander Shepherd’s Washington.

These correspondents were some of the most prominent men in Washington. Joseph Henry was Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for three decades, from 1846 to 1878; Columbus Delano was Secretary of the Interior from 1870 to 1875; General Orville E. Babcock was Superintendent of Public Buildings from June 1871 to March 1877 and private secretary to President Grant; New Yorker Albert Brisbane was an inventor, a political theoretician, and radical communitarian, and wealthy dilettante. This handful of letters shed light on a small part of the story.

Delano’s letter to Henry announces Henry’s appointment to an investigative committee to be composed of Henry, Babcock, and Almon M. Clapp. Clapp was the Congressional Printer. Congress had just passed a resolution directing Delano to investigate the failure of Brisbane to complete his pneumatic tube project; Delano turned to these three men.

Babcock’s letter was in reply to a (missing) note from Henry. He wrote to Henry agreeing to meeting on the proposed date. But the committee’s charge and plan how it was to proceed seems to have been in question. Babcock wrote:

“. . . we have nothing to do except to report what has been done and why it was suspended. I do not understand that we have anything to do with Mr. Brisbane — except on those points — the Sec’y does not invite us to have anything to do with Mr. Brisbane[‘s] tubes further than to report to the Senate in reply to the resolution.” [1]

Brisbane wrote to Henry proposing that he could switch to a smaller circumference for the tube — 16 inches and change materials to iron (from wood). This would allow the tube to be placed beneath the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s tracks and would now be watertight. [2]

Brisbane described his “new system of transportation by means of hollow spheres, carrying their loads inside and moving in pneumatic tubes” as an “invention which proposed to transport the mails and products of the country . . . to and from all parts of it in a few hours, instead of days, and at a cost far less than by means of railroads.” He proposed the use of “the SPHERE,” hollow spheres filled with cargo of some kind and sent through pneumatic tubes.


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In 1870, as reported, the idea began to gain traction in Washington:

“. . . the Committee on Printing having learned, in the spring of 1870, that pneumatic tubes were successfully used in London, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere for the prompt transmission of messages, letters, and parcels, thought that such a mode of conveyance between the Capitol and the Government Printing-Office would be of great practical benefit, for the speedy transmission of proofs, bills, and reports, and would materially aid legislation. The Senate, on the 15th of July, 1870, directed the committee to inquire into the subject, and the result of their correspondence with both practical and scientific men confirmed them in the opinion that a small air-tight cast-iron tube might be successfully and profitably used.” [4]

Discussions of pneumatic tubes were not taken entirely seriously in the Washington press. The February 5, 1872 National Republican newspaper was clearly spoofing the idea when it described a pneumatic tube to convey congressmen from an entrance at the bottom of Capitol Hill at Pennsylvania Avenue, squirting them directly into their seats on the Senate or House floor. [5]

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In March 1873 the Senate expressed its concern that “. . . the pneumatic tube . . . connect[ing] the Capitol with the Government Printing-Office has not been completed. . . .” This is both curious and confusing since the deadline was not for another three months — June 30th — but it was soon after the construction accidents.

The three-man committee found in its investigation that the issue preventing timely completion of the tube was simply the construction difficulties encountered — heavy soil and underground streams, exacerbated by the increased diameter of the tube. The committee wanted to see the tube completed (if it required no further appropriations). Brisbane did offer to complete it with his own funds. Delano was unsympathetic and brusquely denied his request for an extension of time.



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Pneumatic tubes: technological innovation and politics in Shepherd-era Washington DC


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