Entrepreneur aims to bring pneumatics back to the future
Prague is last city to have intricate, antiquated mail service still intact
Posted: February 13, 2013
By Lubomír Sedlák
FOR THE POST
Under Prague's surface lie postal pipelines through which various messages, documents and even medical samples traveled point-to-point inside metal cases until the year 2002, when the network was severely damaged by the city's floods.
Pneumatic tubes started in the 1850s in London and were adopted in cities such as New York, Paris and Vienna by the end of the 19th century. Prague is the only city to still have such a system in place today, nonfunctional though it currently may be. There were two until the early 1990s, when Budapest's was shut down.
The pipelines of the post network are mostly laid under Prague's pavements, between 0.8 and 1.2 meters deep. They are made of special steel (bendable in its cold state for installation and repair) and covered in tar and glass to protect them from humidity.
The engines and the blowers are from cast iron and the terminals from bronze. The cases themselves are 200 millimeters long and almost 50 in diameter and made from aluminium, but their caps are plastic. Objects sent could weigh as much as 3 kilograms, in addition to the case.
When still in operation prior to year 2002, when the underground part of the network was flooded, the cases moved through the pipelines at a speed of at least 4 meters per second, and as much as 10. They were propelled by blowers, in turn powered by electrical cables, which ran parallel to the pipelines.
Prague's first line was just 5.5 kilometers long, leading from the main post office building on Jindřišská street to the castle, and was used primarily to send telegrams. Between 1927 and 1932, the network expanded in all directions, reaching a total length of 55 kilometers. At the time, the metal cases made more than 400,000 trips annually through the network's 26 lines, which spread out from the city center in a radial pattern.
The entrepreneur Zdeněk Dražil saved Prague's network at the end of 2011, purchasing it after years of negotiations with Telefónica CR and its predecessor, Czech Telecom. "The cases could move as fast as 36 kilometers an hour, which is the same speed as the sprinter Usain Bolt," Dražil says. As a result, they could make the distance between the post office and Prague Castle in eight minutes and from one end of the city to the other in 20 minutes at the most.
Similar but much smaller internal pipeline networks can be found in several Prague hospitals, according to the daily Mladá fronta Dnes (MfD). The one at Motol Hospital sends X-rays, and in Střešovice blood travels through the tubes to operating rooms. The system is also in use at some supermarkets to dispatch daily takings from cash registers and, until recently, government offices used such a system, as well.
Important institutions such as the Czech News Agency tapped into the citywide network. Employees shipped one another hot sausages and rolls, Dražil says, and the system had more sinister uses, too: "Some even played practical jokes on their female coworkers at the other end of the line by sending them a live mouse, which made them jump on the table and pull up their skirts."
During World War II, the lines served a more serious purpose. In the May 1945 uprising against the Nazis, the pipelines were used to send ammunition to people who defended the Czech Radio building. Between 1948 and 1989, the communists used the network to fill in for sparse phone services and as a stand-in for telex, which was viewed as a potential threat by the regime. During these years, the network gradually began to decline, with only some 100,000 cases a year being sent in the 1990s.´
The devastating floods of 2002 took out the engine rooms and the blowers that had propelled the cases; in other words, every part of the system that was underground. "The worst thing was that it wasn't water from the Vltava but from the city's sewers," Dražil says.
So why did he decide to buy something that was in such a desolate state? "My software firm had in the early 1990s become a supplier to Czech Telecom, and its people showed me the terminal inside the main post office building on Jindřišská," Dražil recalls. It was love at first sight. "I just couldn't believe my eyes; what I saw was a piece of perfectly skilled work, all made by hand; I felt as if I had returned to the 19th century and the world of Jules Verne."
Dražil won't say how much he had paid for the system, but MfD reports the transaction was worth millions. He said he financed the purchase with earnings from his other firms.
He has already been courted by a buyer from Russia who wanted to take the whole system home, but Dražil turned that down. "I am a Prague patriot," he says, "convinced that one day this system, which was the city's first Internet of sorts, will make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list."
Dražil has decided to restore only the oldest line, from Jindřišská to a small terminal inside the post office at Prague Castle. His idea is that tourists could come and see it. "I think the Americans and the Japanese would be particularly thrilled," he says. Visitors would not only be able to inspect the terminal but also send someone inside the respective case a message that would be picked up by the addressee in the city center.
The line's reconstruction will come to about 5 million Kč, Dražil estimates. "I have already approached five different companies, all owned by the city of Prague, with the question of whether they would be prepared to co-finance the project as sponsors," Dražil said. "One of them, Kolektory Praha, has indeed made a contribution."
Dražil will also have to invest in the line's day-to-day operation, including possible repairs, but he says he will need just two people for the job, not the 20 that used to tend to the entire network. "I'm not expecting to make any profit from this project," he says. "It should just cover its cost."
Lubomír Sedlák can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org