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The Philatelist

Stamp Nook: Posta Pneumatica Update

The Philatelist | 2008-12-17.1015 LMT | Philately | Pneumatics | Technology | Cascadia

Welcome to a special addendum issue of Stamp Nook that contains no stamps. Shocking, I know. It does, however, contain a footnote on postal history, so we shall maintain an air of patience while hearing it out.

The blog Division of Labour has found an interesting New York Times article from Dec. 15, 1908 on the rejection by the office of the Postmaster General of a proposal for the U.S. government to own and operate pneumatic tube systems for the delivery of mails. The article in full:

"That it is not feasible and desirable at the present time for the Government to purchase, to install, or to operate pneumatic tubes," is one of the most important conclusions reached by a commission appointed by the Postmaster General to inquire into the feasibility and desirability of the purchase and operation by the Government of pneumatic tubes in the cities where the service is now installed.

The report was to-day transmitted to Congress by Postmaster General Meyer. He approves its conclusions. The commission, however, recommends a further investigation of the subject of Government ownership of the pneumatic tube service in five or six years. The pneumatic tube service is in operation at present in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Brooklyn.

The report commends the service as an important auxiliary for the rapid transmission of first-class mail and special delivery mail. It, however, adds these conclusions:

That pneumatic tube service appears to be still in an experimental condition, although progress has been made toward the development of a fixed standard of machinery;

That with the above reservation the regularity and efficiency of the tube service are commendable.

The commission was composed of Postmasters Campbell of Chicago, Mansfield of Boston, Roberts of Brooklynm Wyman of St. Louis, and a number of officials of the Postal Service.

As noted, there were already pneumatic mail services in six major cities by then being run by the government, albeit using tubes rented from private concerns such as the Chicago Pneumatic Tube Company. The Post Office Department's interest in pneumatics went back at least to 1892, when the Postmaster General was authorized to contract for transmission of mails by pneumatic tubes (a copy of the authorizing act can be found here.) But controversy followed this move when James W. Beach claimed that the government had usurped his patents on a pneumatic conveyor. A March 3, 1899 NYT article explains his dispute:

Twenty million dollars is the sum James W. Beach, 115 Dearbon Street, a Chicago attorney, who says he has practiced law in this city for thirty years, demands of the United States. He has begun an action in the Court of Claims in Washington to recover compensation for the appropriation of a patent on "pneumatic conveyors," which he claims is being illegally used by the Government in the Post Office Department.

Mr. Beach has gone to Washington, and to-day many people who called at his office found the door locked, though few of them knew he was seeking enough money from the Nation's strong box to make twenty men millionaires. Beach claims he obtained letter patent on his device April 26, 1892, and has never parted with it except as to certain States and Territories sold to the "Beach Pneumatic Conveyor Company," a corporation under the laws of Illinois.

He alleges that the Postmaster General advertised for bids furnishing pneumatic carriers, and that the advertisement stated the bids should "be accompanied by a proposal offering to license or to otherwise invest in the United States the right to use the tube of device, to lease by the year, or to sell, assign, and transfer to the United States as purchaser."

Beach sets forth that he executed an instrument in accordance with the above specification conveying his patents to the United States for the sum of $20,000,000, and that this instrument has never been returned by the Government, and that he is thereby deprived of all rights to his device and estopped from bringing suit to protect the device against infringement. He alleges further that the tubes in use by the Government are practically his own device, and that the Government has entered into contracts with the corporation handling the device alleged to be patterned after his own. He contends that his proposal to transfer his patent to the Government amounts "in equity to a deed," and the failure of the Government to return it is on its face an acceptance of his patent at the terms he proposed, $20,000,000.

His claim eventually went to the Supreme Court, and in the 1912 case Beach v. United States, he was found not to have entered into a contract with the Government and was denied his twenty million.

(N.B.: As far as I can tell, Mr Beach is not related to Alfred Ely Beach, famous for his Beach Pneumatic Transit, New York's first subway. I'm sure that this synchronicity of names is purely a coincidence and not an example of 'conspiratorial onomatology'.)

As I mentioned in a previous edition of Stamp Nook on pneumatic postal systems around the world, a few other nations not quite as prone to litigiousness did manage to create nationalised pneumatic systems, including Italy, which issued special stamps for the purpose up until 1966; but all eventually fell into disuse and disrepair.

Today, the only national pneumatic postal system in normal operation is the one installed clandestinely under the noses of occupying Federalist authorities in the breakaway republic of Cascadia. Guarded and maintained by Sasquatch separatists and used both for the delivery of official communications by the Cascadian government and for tube feeds of posts from Mr Zapato's blog, the system bears little resemblance, beyond the basics of pneumatic conveyance, to the Victorian technologies referred to above, being as it is all computerised and 'Tube 2.0'-ish.

Cascadia certainly hasn't followed Italy's example and adopted the use of pneumatic stamps, even though I have on numerous occasions forwarded proposals to Mr Zapato on how to include stamps in their system by printing barcode cancellations on pod-affixed stamps that would then be read and acted upon by pneumatic routers. I am certain this system would work and would open a whole new philatelic field of pneumatic routing code specialisation, which I would rule with iron tongs.

As much as I like to support the founding of new nations such as Cascadia, so as to increase the amount of philatelic material to be collected, categorized, and mounted on little cellophane hinges, a nation that would put so much reliance on a stampless postal system such as the Cascadians are doing is one whose existence I must begin to question. Even the 'Belgians' are issuing new stamps, while Cascadia hasn't issued any new designs since 1998! Just how many duplicates of Windows CE commemoratives am I supposed to accumulate before enough is enough?

Oh, I can't bear it anymore! I thought I could be patient, but this lack of stamps is just too much. So here's one from Mongolia showing a panda eating a bowl of peaches...

Mongolia #790

Ah, that's better. Until next time, happy philateling!

End of post.