Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cash Railways

A pneumatic tube terminal
If you study the history of computing and computation you are astounded, again and again, by the ingenuity used, in the pre-computer and network days, to solve everyday problems.
    Having spent some time frequenting hospitals recently I was very impressed that they can take a blood sample and receive an analysis from the remote lab within one hour. I was surprised to find that central to the process is a network of pneumatic tubes that connect clinics to the lab. The nurses place the samples into a cylindrical container that is placed in the tube and “sucked” all the way to the lab in some remote building. The results come back via the computer network.
    The reason for my surprise was that I thought such devices had died out long ago. They used to be common in department stores where the sales clerk would enclose your money and details of the sale in a similar cylinder and send it on its way to a remote accounting office. The office would send back your change and a receipt, or details on the purchase registered on your account – the return would be announced by a great deal of wheezing and rattling as the cylinder made its way back through the tubes and finally plunked into a basket.
The Lamson Air-Line wire system
    It’s not too far-fetched to regard these devices as early versions of EFTPOS machines, though restricted to just one department store. For smaller, single-floor stores there was an even more exciting system for the same function. The sales stations were connected to the accounting office by tight overhead wires on which hung small 2-wheeled trolleys that could carry cash and documentation. The sales clerk would load the trolley, then, with the aid of a built-in catapult, send it skimming across to the office, which shortly thereafter would send it shooting back. Very exciting for children accompanying their mother shopping! I think that I last saw one of these systems in operation in Hong Kong in 1989.
    I didn’t even know what these devices were called but a bit of Googling led me to the Cash Railways website that gave me the name “cash railway.” The home page opens with a simulation of the trolley and has all the details that you would need to know about cash railways. It even has local information on where systems were installed and tells us that you can see “wire catapult” systems at the Cambridge Museum and the Taranaki Aviation Transport and Technology Museum. Worth a visit!
- Bob Doran

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