A 1900 Globe article saw a future full of pneumatic tubes. Wrong!
A Globe reporter in 1900 asked the city’s top minds what the year 2000 would look like. Some things they got right, others they got wrong. One prediction was that a pneumatic tube system would connect every home — and bring people their lunches. It’s enough to make you question how much we really know today about our own future. This is the first in a series of looks at the article.
Imagine a pneumatic tube service delivering everything you need to your home with a whoosh of compressed air: your mail, your news, your lunch, anything you want from the store — like some kind of steampunk Amazon.
Thomas F. Anderson, in a 1900 Globe article, saw that happening by the year 2000. In a lengthy piece, “Boston at the End of the 20th Century — A Glimpse Into the Distant Future, and What It Reveals to the Local Prophets,” he painted a picture of a future that never happened.
The piece was printed on Christmas Day 1900, undoubtedly meant for a leisurely read in less distracted days.
Anderson wondered “how far is the ever-advancing wave of civilization destined to carry the modern Athens along all the later-day lines of material progress and how different will be the life of the man or woman who crosses Boston common on Jan. 1, 2000, compared with the life of the hundreds who will cross it today?”
Many people in Boston, Anderson wrote, were “gifted with the power of prophetic insight, and to some of these bright minds in different walks of life the Globe has appealed for a brief forecast of the future.”
It wasn’t that farfetched at the time to believe that pneumatic tube mail systems — in which items are placed in capsules and moved from place to place by compressed air — would expand.
By the late 19th century pneumatic tube mail systems had been installed inPragueandParis. Here in America, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and St. Louis also installed systems, according to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. As stunts, various animals were sent through the tubes,a 1922 account says.
Pneumatic tube mail service was launched in Boston on Dec. 20, 1897. It connected the main post office and seven other stations. It was discontinued on June 30, 1918. It was restored on Aug. 1, 1926, but only connecting the main post office and North and South stations. It was discontinued on Dec. 31, 1950, according to the US Postal Service.
Some pneumatic tube mail systems remained in operation well into the latter half of the 20th century. However, by the 1950s, “it became clear that the end of pneumatic tubes was in sight as increasing mail volumes and changing urban landscapes made it impractical,” the Smithsonian website said.
Smaller pneumatic tube systems were used in other contexts, including stores and various kinds of offices. Even today, some pneumatic tube technology can be seen around, at bank drive-throughs and hospitals. And Elon Musk’s much-ballyhooed Hyperloop proposal is essentially a train in a pneumatic tube (an idea that has gotten attention in the past but never gained much traction).
Here’s what Anderson wrote in 1900:
The pneumatic tube service . . . will have reached its perfection long before the first half of the new century has flown. It will have become a most important factor in the domestic life of the people which also will have undergone great changes.
The servant girl problem will have been solved by the elimination of the servant girl system, and in its place will have come a special janitor service, supplemented by the pneumatic tube system aforesaid.
Through such tubes a householder will undoubtedly receive his letters, his readymade lunches, his laundry, his morning and evening paper, and even the things he may require from the department store, which will furnish at the touch of a button any essential solid or liquid that can be named.
Anderson also interviewed Postmaster George A. Hibbard, who was bullish on pneumatic tubes at a time the city’s pneumatic mail system still had two decades to grow. Hibb’s long-term vision of door-to-door tubes was off, however, as was his prediction about the continued dominance of letters as a form of communication. Here’s what Hibbard told Anderson:
“The system of pneumatic transmission of mail already introduced is undoubtedly to have an extensive development, and I have little doubt that the time will come when mail will be sent from the central or branch post office through such tubes directly to the house or office of the citizen who cares to pay for the cost of such service.”
“It may be only a matter of months before the central office in Boston is connected with the various branches by pneumatic tube service, as I have already asked the department at Washington for permission to connect the Back Bay and South end stations with such a service. There is little question that the efficiency of the postal service will be thereby materially increased.”
“I do not anticipate that the cheapening and extension of the telegraph or telephone service is going to adversely affect the number of letters written and mailed in the future. On the contrary, the cheapening and improvement of the postal service may operate as a factor against the growth of the other service.”
At the time, the telephone was a relatively new phenomenon, arriving on the heels of the telegraph. Radio was barely born. Anderson’s experts foresaw “wireless telegraphy” connecting the average person through his house’s master dashboard to all parts of the country.
Wireless telegraphy is the sending of telegraph signals by radio, not sending audio. The story imagined a separate “telephonic connection” with the church, theatre, and office.
By means of his electro-pneumatic switchboard, with which all well regulated houses will be equipped, he may sit in his comfortable arm chair and enjoy either the minister’s sermon or the latest opera in the new Symphony hall of the vintage of 1960.
Anderson’s story also predicted:
The telephone will have become a relic of the past, and by means of wireless telegraphy the citizen may communicate with any city or town in the land.
Could he be suggesting people would be telegraphing each other via radio all over the country? Or was he using “wireless telegraphy” loosely and envisioning today’s anywhere-to-anywhere audio and video phone calls?
Anderson’s experts were right about something — that houses would one day have both hot and cold water, though they were wrong in predicting that the water would come preheated from a “heating company” to the house.
The article also foresaw the demand for one day doing something about Boston’s hottest summer days. Anderson wrote that “hot and cold air and even liquid air will be possible to turn on an imitation east wind.”
It’s not clear exactly what role he saw for liquid air. Nitrogen, the main component in air, is liquid between minus-346 and minus-320 Fahrenheit. It’s not really something you can keep around the house.
The newspaper’s artwork accompanying the article showed the dashboard for the home of 2000, with prominent, possibly tongue-in-cheek display of a button that would bring a copy of the Globe shooting through a pneumatic tube to the home.
There’s also a button for that “east wind.” It may seem like Anderson and the artist were having a little fun, but air conditioning as we know it today would not arrive until a couple of decades later.
So what was he supposed to call it but “east wind”?
Not only will hot and cold water (the one furnished by a heating company and the other sterilized before being sent through the pipes) be constantly at his command, but hot and cold air and even liquid air will be possible to turn on an imitation east wind at any time the outside temperature reaches an uncomfortable height.
Rosemarie McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.