"I Got Root on the Prague Pneumatic Post"
by J. C. Herz
In Prague, there is a fully functional municipal pneumatic tube system == the only one still in operation (the one in Paris was shut down long ago). It runs underneath the entire city == five trunk lines, 55 kilometers of tubes, switches, and relays snaking underground from the main post office in Old Town, south to New Town, which was constructed in the 14th century, across the river on the underbellies of three bridges, and all the way up to Prague Castle.
It takes eight minutes for a pneumatic tube to reach the furthest point on the network. An air blower starts at the point of origin, and a vacuum starts at the destination. On longer lines there is a relay network of air pumps which switch from vacuums to blowers once the tube passes, sort of like booster stations.
The first message was sent in 1899. On March 4, 1999, the system was 100 years old.
Originally, it was for wire telegrams. They came in, were rolled up and sent by pneumatic tube to the most important buildings in the city. After that, the system was used for telexes, which had to be centrally controlled so that the communist secret police could inspect everything. The telex room is in the same building: half an acre of ceiling-height shelves, like library stacks except it's not books, it's wiring, feeding into the same Cold War telex machines, still ticking.
The 1960's were a big decade for the Prague pneumatic post. Big traffic in the '70s, when the government-run Czech Press Agency was run out of same building == they distributed all approved international information, news, and government propaganda to the newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations via pneumatic tube. That ended in 1989, when the Velvet Revolution entitled news providers to get their information wherever they wanted.
But instead of fading into obsolescence, the Prague Post stubbornly reinvented itself as conduit for financial documents. Banks. When you need an original document within minutes, the pneumatic tube system beats a bike messenger. The system is actually being expanded now, at the behest of the financial sector. And the poetry is that it's owned and operated by Czech Telecom. They have to keep it running because the pneumatic tube lines run alongside the gas lines and if they shut down the system there might be a hazardous build-up and possibly explosions, and it's cheaper to keep it running than to dig it all up.
The system loses about $70,000 a year, but at that price it's a relatively inexpensive early warning system for gas leaks.
I found out about the Prague Post from Bruce Sterling's Dead Media listserv and made inquiries about seeing it. The Swiss consultancy that was bringing me over has connections in the Czech Republic and set up an appointment with the Pneumatic Post Supervisor, since the system isn't open to the public. And he gave me the whole history and the grand tour.
And the whole time there were these tubby ladies with gloves, who've probably been working there since the wire days, intercepting and redepositing these pneumatic cylinders, which arrive with a big rattle and a horrendous thud. These tubes are moving ten meters per second, and they're metal, and when they land they hit hard.
When he'd finished explaining, one of the red lights in this pipe organ of pneumatic tube conduits began to blink. And so I asked, "Can I? Can I do it? Can I put one of the messages in?" The tubby ladies eyed me suspiciously but the supervisor agreed.
So, poised over the iron and brass console, I opened one of the small, circular hinged doors. And there was an enormous whoosh of brownish smoke and a scary noise and so I threw the capsule into the hole and quickly closed the little door. There was more rattling and banging, and a light went on, and I turned to the supervisor and said, "I think I just broke your 100-year-old pneumatic tube system." But he said no, and got one of the maintenance guys to dislodge the capsule with a broomstick, whereupon it zoomed off to its intended location.
Most of the tubes have automatic air shut-off, he explained. This one was manual and I wasn't quick enough. One of the tubby ladies nodded smugly. But still, he said, "You are the first foreigner to operate the system. You should get a certificate."
Being eight years old inside, I immediately seized on this. "Can I? Can you make me a certificate? Do you have letterhead? Can you type a certificate for me? It would really... I mean, it would really mean a lot." And I actually marched the man into his office and made him type out this certificate on Czech Telecom letterhead:
"I hereby certify that Ms. J. C. HERZ has been the first foreigner who personally PUT a Pneumatic Mail System Cartridge into the appropriate aperture of the single and unique Prague Pneumatic Mail System."
Signed, Jiri Hak, Managing Director.
This piece of paper is now one of my most prized possessions. How often can you go into a country and be the first foreigner to do something? As far as I'm concerned, this is my claim to fame.