On the corner of a street in our county town stands an old department store.
No-one knows how it makes any money.
It is stuck in or around the 1950s. Push the glass doors and walk in, and you will observe a men’s tailoring department neatly crammed with old men’s suits and cobwebs, and an attendant who carries with him an eerie gothic air. Venture to the women’s section and you will find items none of us have seen for many years: those rain hoods you used to see, which tied so neatly over a blue-rinse, and twin sets fashioned from fabric which garners an electrical charge.
Maddie and I visit the uniform department. It sells all her school’s accessories, hung neatly on rail after rail or folded spotlessly beneath the glass-topped mahogany counters.
But it does do to arrive with cash. For a card means a trip to the small cash office where staff industriously work with machines which seem almost beyond their ken. When the exchange is done staff spend an age producing a hand written receipt, outlining every item in slow, deliberate copperplate.
It is almost Dickensian, but in a Miss Havisham kind of way. Established in 1875, it is spotless, yet there is the sense that dust lies thick everywhere.
And yesterday, The Times announced it is soon to be put up on the market.
We’re all devastated. But it’s an institution! chorused voices in cyberspace; and someone observed wryly, yes: but people don’t shop in institutions.
The short paragraph in The Times observed that this is the last department store in the country to be still using the Lamson Tube.
Invented by Scottish inventor William Murdoch, the pneumatic tube works like a straw.
You make a fan suck or blow down a pipe, creating changes in pressure which propel the small capsules inside along them. Shop attendants put cheques and notes requiring change into a capsule, and it would whistle off to the accounts office, where someone would supply change in a tube, shooting back to the waiting customer.
These days it sounds like a palaver. We are such an instant society. But in New York in the late 19th century they were quite the thing. Efficient, speedy, cutting edge. And not just in department stores: London’s Stock Exchange was linked to the telegraph station via pneumatic tube – about 220 yards away. Paris had 467 km of tubing weaving under the city, which lasted until 1984 when computers and faxes took over.
To name but a few.
The next logical step was a breathtaking prospect. What about a people tube?
You will see from the snatch of cartoon above- the March of Intellect by impish William Heath (1829) what some thought of that. A vacuum train straight to Bengal was the perfect overstatement to make one’s readers howl with mirth.
But the writers loved it. Jules Verne created a system in Paris in the 20th Century (1863). And look at Albert Robida’s vision for the The Twentieth Century (1882):
The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace featured a 550-metre pneumatic railway which would, had it come to fruition, have travelled under the Thames from Charing Cross to Waterloo. Digging started: but financial problems stopped play. And in New York’s American Institute Fair Alfred Ely designed a 32 metre tube which could move 12 passengers and a conductor:
Not so far fetched, then: but laying tubes cost money. No-one could make this magnificent vacuum travel idea pay.
Rather like my old department store: a lovely idea, but not financially viable. But both the store and the tubes are still standing. In 2010 Southwest Jiaotong University in China were working on a vacuum-travel model which could reach 620 miles per hour.
Let us see whether the two old ideas- the store and the people-tubes- are alive this time next year.