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The pneumatic tube business isn’t dead yet

Matthew Algeo Apr 25, 2024
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Scott Rudder demonstrating the pneumatic tube system at Township Green, his cannabis dispensary in Riverside, New Jersey. Matthew Algeo/Marketplace

The pneumatic tube business isn’t dead yet

Matthew Algeo Apr 25, 2024
Heard on:
Scott Rudder demonstrating the pneumatic tube system at Township Green, his cannabis dispensary in Riverside, New Jersey. Matthew Algeo/Marketplace
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Over the past couple of decades, ATMs and online accounts have just about killed the drive-thru window at the bank. That’s been bad for the companies that sell pneumatic tubes — you know, canisters that are sucked to the teller by air pressure. But once upon a time, pneumatic tubes were a really big deal.

“The golden age of pneumatic tubes was the late 19th into the early 20th century,” said Holly Kruse, a communications professor at Rogers State University in Oklahoma who studies obsolete technologies. Back then, she said, major cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington had miles of underground pneumatic tubes. The systems were “a way to quickly transport messages, both the mail and telegraph messages, in urban areas, bypassing the slow traffic on the streets.”

In 1900, Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith said it wouldn’t be surprising to see “the extension of the pneumatic tube system to every house.” Alas, modern improvements like the telephone and highways killed that idea. But the tubes are still used in hospitals for moving medications and specimens. And in recent years, another industry has led to a bump in sales: cannabis dispensaries.

“There’s always some sort of physical product that needs to be transported, and that’s what pneumatic tubes do,” said Matthew Kelly, a sales rep for his family’s company, Kelly Systems, which has been in the pneumatic tube business since 1904. He said the systems are becoming common in cannabis dispensaries.

“To move their product from the vault to the retail floor is a very controlled and policed system in the dispensaries, and you can either have somebody doing that or a system like this where it can’t be interrupted or tampered with,” Kelly said.

Plus, pneumatic tubes are just kind of fun. Scott Rudder recently opened Township Green, a cannabis dispensary in an old bank in Riverside, New Jersey. He updated the pneumatic tube system so customers can pick up their pot without getting out of the car. They order ahead online, pull up to the drive-thru and send their ID through the tube to the cashier, who sends their cannabis back.

“It’s totally cool,” said Rudder. “Our entire lives it’s only been cash and checks, you know, from sitting in the back seat of your mom’s car and then you’re doing it as an adult — and, all of a sudden, it’s weed now.”

Rudder said it’s not how he expected to be using pneumatic tubes in 2024. So is this the beginning of their second golden age?  Probably not, but in many cities the tubes are still underground, so you never know. Take note, however: According to the National Postal Museum, the exact location of the tube network in Washington, D.C., is classified.

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