The Victorian Internet: A series of tubes

Appropriately enough for the nation that pioneered the first telegraphs, the French had their own twist on the use of pneumatic tubes. For of all the tube networks built around the world, the most successful was in Paris, where sending and receiving pneus became a part of everyday life in the late nineteenth century. Like the pneumatic tube networks in many other major cities, the Paris network was extensive enough that many local messages could be sent from sender to recipient entirely by tube and messenger, without any need for telegraphic transmission. In these cases, the telegraph form that the sender wrote the message on actually ended up in the hands of the recipient—which meant that long messages were just as easy to deliver as short messages.

So, in 1879, a new pricing structure was announced: For messages travelling within the Paris tube network, the price was fixed, no matter how long the message. Faster than the post and cheaper than sending a telegram, this network provided a convenient way to send local messages within Paris, though the service was operated by the state telegraph company and the messages were officially regarded as telegrams.

Messages were written on special forms, which could be purchased, prepaid, in advance. These could then be deposited into small post boxes next to conventional mailboxes, handed in at telegraph counters in post offices, or put into boxes mounted on the backs of trams, which were unloaded when the trams reached the end of the line. Once in the system, messages were sent along the tubes to the office nearest the destination and then delivered by messenger. Each message might have to pass through several sorting stations on the way to its destination; it was date-stamped at each one, so that its route could be determined. (The same is true of today’s e-mail messages, whose headers reveal their exact paths across the Internet.) No enclosures were allowed to be included with messages, and any messages that broke this rule were transferred to the conventional postal service and charged at standard postal rates.

The scheme was a great success, and the volume of messages being passed around the network almost doubled in the first year. The network was further extended as a result, and for many years messages were affectionately known as petits bleus, after the blue color of the message forms.

Could this be where Senator Stevens got his “series of tubes” idea about the Internet? Perhaps he wasn’t that far off after all.

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