Pneumatic tubes, using the force of pressurised air, can transport capsules containing objects – messages, documents and even larger parcels – through specially designed pipelines. They became popular from the late 19th century and were used in shops, hotels and offices and for transmitting telegrams from telegraph stations.
There was one such telegraph station in the heritage-listed building that now houses the National Archives in Parkes, Canberra. Secretariat Building 1 or East Block, as it was known, was the first government office building in Canberra and home to Canberra’s Post and Telegraph Office.
East Block was built in 1925 to the design of the Acting Director-General of Works in Melbourne, John Smith Murdoch. As chief architect, Murdoch was also responsible for the design of the provisional parliament house.
Murdoch’s design was not the only link between East Block and Parliament House. From 1925 they were also connected by a pneumatic tube line, plans for which were discussed by Percy Owen, Director-General of Works in Canberra, in his letter to Murdoch on 2 October 1924.
The idea was to link several rooms in Parliament House to the Post and Telegraph Office in the secretariat building just across the road. The tube line would also extend to the Government Printing Office, some suburbs away.
The pneumatic tube was ideal for the task at hand. It was fast – the equivalent of modern fax and electronic communications. It was secure. It was also able to transmit messages at all hours – meaning no rest for public servants close to the source of political power and action!
The Sydney branch of Lamson Store Service Company Limited, a well-known British pneumatic tube supplier, installed the tube system in Canberra in 1925. Pneumatic tubes were sometimes called ‘Lamson tubes’, and the company’s patent applications are among the many that are held in the National Archives collection.
In 1940, during World War II, another pneumatic tube linking the two secretariat buildings (East Block and West Block) was installed. This provided a secure labour and time-saving link between the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister’s Department to help government wartime communication.
Today, Canberra’s underground pneumatic tube system is just a memory. The outlet in East Block is closed off, but still visible in the small plant room that housed the original ‘home station’ in the basement. Pnuematic tube technology, however, is still in use in hospitals, hospitality and commerce.