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WHAT WAS ... PNEUMATIC POST AT HHLA?

First there’s a hissing in the pipes, then the cylinder crashes into the mail box. For decades, HHLA operated a pneumatic post system using compressed air. The speed of transport actually beat the tempo of today’s e-mails once these have been checked for spam and viruses.  

 

In today's world, when letters and images, even films, can be despatched within seconds online, but are then checked for spam and viruses for minutes on end, this much seems inconceivable: until recently, pneumatic messaging was the fastest way of despatching a document.  

 

The world’s first municipal pneumatic post in London used compressed air to shoot news to its destination from 1853 onwards. Hamburg also recognized the advantage of the rapid tube link, taking the Hamburg City Pneumatic Post into service in 1864. Gradually compressed air technology spread, and so smaller pneumatic mail systems were soon speeding up work routines in Hamburg companies.  

 

At the time, sending documents rapidly through the tube seemed a superb invention. A pneumatic messaging system was accordingly laid in the former HCCR office block on CTB, its zigzag tubes linking five different stations on three floors. “There was no rushing up and down the stairwell,” remembers Margot Behn, even though countless documents were circulating daily between the purchasing, commissioning and accounts departments, the secretaries and the management. That the cylinders made a great din when they clattered into the reception tray, was admittedly a somewhat irritating side-effect. All the more appropriate the nickname for the mail pods: “tubular bombs”.  

 

Ingo Wöstenberg is somebody else who recalls the hissing of the compressed air tubes. As a secretarial assistant at Überseezentrum, he often stuffed documents into the pneumatic message carriers, screwing the closure tight and placing the consignment in the inlet of the compressed air system. He then activated the compressed air at the press of a button. “There was such a mighty whoosh behind it that I always had to hang on to my wedding ring,” says Wöstenberg, who can still picture the pneumatic messaging centre with twelve different connection tubes in front of him.  

 

When the Überseezentrum opened in 1967, pneumatic messaging was also taken into service. The direction of the flow in the tubes could be reversed. For instance, delivery or collection notes for goods could be sent backwards and forwards between all five warehouses, the truck reception point and head office. That saved long messenger trips and therefore also time on cargo handling.

 

Things became really awkward, however, when the pneumatic post became blocked. “Sometimes the cylinder closures had not been properly screwed tight, or a horsemeat sausage despatched clandestinely proved too heavy for the compressed air,” reveals Wöstenberg with a grin. Then fitters had to check every centimetre of the tubes stretching for over six kilometres, until the blockage had been found and rectified: “Mostly, though, the pneumatic post system functioned without a hitch.”