Pneumatic Tube Transport

Pneumatic tubes were once a ubiquitous feature of Federal buildings both in Washington, DC, and around the country.

Eleanor Ernest taking a cylinder with telegrams from the pneumatic tube in which they have been sent across several blocks by air pressure, Washington, DC, June 1943. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The National Archives even has the “Records of the Pneumatic Tube Service,” which operated in the Post Office Department from 1892 to 1953. It oversaw underground networks of pneumatic tubes, which used compressed air to swiftly send mail around several major cities in the United States. Mail traveled in pneumatic tube canisters, some of which could hold up to 600 letters and went an average speed of 35 miles per hour!

Edith L. Houbert with a reference request sent via pneumatic tube system from Central Research Room in the National Archives Building, ca. 1940. (National Archives Identifier 12168920)

When the National Archives first opened, we used pneumatic tubes to facilitate our reference service. Installed by the Lamson Company of Syracuse, NY, in the 1930s, the tubes carried reference request slips from the Central Research Room to locations around the building.

The advisory committee to establish the National Archives Building briefly looked into a system to transport original records not only within the building but also from other Federal buildings to the National Archives. They ultimately rejected the idea as being impractical and instead recommended the use of tubes as an efficient way to transport requests for records from the Central Research Room to the staff who pulled the records. 

Lyman Hinckley sending a reference request via pneumatic tube at the control desk of the Central Research Room of the National Archives Building, ca. 1940. (National Archives Identifier 12168910)

The National Archives has long stopped using the tubes, and many of the remaining ones were removed during a major building renovation in the early 2000s. 

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