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Subterranean Communication Networks: Contingency, Exigency, and Paris's Pneumatic Post

Sat, May 27, 8:00 to 9:15, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 4, Sapphire 410A


Devised as an auxiliary to the telegraph, a medium that could only transmit 40–50 messages of 20 words per hour in 1860, pneumatic tube networks addressed the issue of rapid, reliable communication within the city against the capacity limitations of telegraph wires and telegraph workers. First implemented in London in 1853, pneumatic tube technology quickly transferred to other cities across the world. The largest network operated in Paris from 1866 until 1984, when reliable telephone and fax obviated the need for the network.

This paper takes the example of Paris’s Poste Pneumatique to examine the benefits of buried communication infrastructure, a speedy communication solution to a sort of 19th and early 20th century last mile problem, particularly to facilitate the movement of capital. By sending messages under the streets, Poste Pneumatique messages circumvented traffic, routing messages from one end of the city to another within two hours. As Rosalind Williams writes in Notes on the Underground, that the burying of infrastructure allowed the city to be conceived of as a unified system, its proper functioning depending on buried subsystems—networks of electrical power, of sewer and water service, of subway and telephone lines.” The Poste Pneumatique is a particular example of communication and contingency, of the exigency of finance, and the roots of support that communication networks built for the city to grow above them.


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