When Paris Sent its Mail Down the Tubes

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When Paris Sent its Mail Down the Tubes
Forget email, SMS and WhatsApp – if you wanted to send a message quickly to someone in Paris in the 20th century, you would have used the pneumatique. Mention it to a Parisian of retirement age and they will know immediately what you are talking about. It’s 40 years now since this remarkable means of communicating across Paris finally shut down but it still lingers in people’s memories. Its petits bleus lettercards are as evocative of Paris as Robert Doisneau’s black and white photographs, both nowadays evoking a city gone forever. The Paris pneumatique was not the first system of its kind but it was the most extensive in the world. The concept of pneumatic post developed as a response to the electric telegraph. This was the technological marvel of the early 19th century; for the first time in history messages could be sent and received in minutes instead of days. But its popularity was such that by the middle of the century, the capacity of telegraph systems in large, densely-populated cities like New York, Paris and London was saturated and delivery times slowed down. This was a problem for business and, in particular, stock exchanges, which had come to rely on the rapid exchange of information. In addition, messages had to be encrypted and then decrypted from morse code. Wouldn’t it be better if letters in plain language could be transmitted just as quickly? The steam plant for the compression of air and its rarefaction, at the Hôtel des Postes, in Paris. Image: Louis Figuier/Wikimedia Commons It was as an extension to the telegraph service that pneumatic services came into existence. London opened the first pneumatic post in 1853. In Paris the telegraph network was overloaded and faltering by the 1860s to the extent that people were reverting to sending letters by road transport, with all the delays that entailed. Emperor Napoleon III of France ordered the construction of the French capital’s own pneumatique.  In 1866 an experimental 1km stretch was opened between the Bourse and the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines. In 1868 the first official line was opened, linking government ministries with the Central Post Office, then situated in Rue de Grenelle. For the next 11 years the network remained “closed” in the sense that it served only official institutions, but gradually post offices were incorporated and in 1878 the postal and telegraph services merged into one company:  P&T (Poste et Télégraphe, later to become PTT with the addition of telephones). In the following year the pneumatique was opened up to the public. It quickly became a faster, alternative method of posting letters.  A map of the Paris pneumatic tube network in 1888. Louis Figuier. Public domain. The technology was actually quite simple and had been invented in the 1830s by a Scotsman, William Murdoch. Letters were placed in small capsules, which were then dropped into metal tubes. Compressed air operating in a push-pull manner whooshed the capsules round the city at speeds reaching 40km an hour. The tubes were laid through the sewers, alongside railway and, later, Métro, lines, and across bridges in a network that covered every neighborhood. There was still an element of old fashioned mail delivery: letters were dropped into separate pneu mailboxes on the street and at the other end, the capsules arrived at specialized collection centers where dedicated couriers called tubistes delivered the letters to individual addresses. All the same, letters could be delivered within a couple of hours. 
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Lead photo credit : The receiving and sending device of a pneumatic tube, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.