« Comment Problems? | Main | The Invisible Context »

Saturday, 18 December 2010


Wow - I really like that photo! Is there a larger version of it available online, or as a print?

The picture reminds me of images I have seen of "artistic" datacenter cabling (scroll down 1/3 of the way to "data center cable art"), which then reminds me of the opposite (examples: one, and two).

Oh man, fiber optics bundles were just HUGE in those days.

Hard to even imagine the size of the laser diodes needed to drive them. They must have been inches across.

We've lost so much technology since then-- all we know how to make is small stuff, now.

pax / nostalgic Ctein

They did tend to think mechanically in those days, even when it came to communication.

A bit of lore that survives in my family: when my great-grandmother put in electric lights in our summer house, local rural kids would come over to play them them because they thought the "remote" feature was so amazing--that is, they'd seen electric lights with the switch on the light itself, but the idea of turning a light on the ceiling off and on with a switch over that was set in the wall over by the door was still amazing and wonderful.


The thing is, all the crap that Ted Stevens got over those remarks belies the fact that the pipes analogy is not completely off base when discussing how the Internet works. It's not a coincidence that network connections are often called "pipes."

Apparently there was a pneumatic tube system in NYC at one time for moving mail. Long abandoned, the existing tubes have been considered to be re-used as conduits for fiber optic lines.


The first "secret" subway system in NYC was also driven pneumatically. http://curiousexpeditions.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/609px-beach_pneumatic_transit_01.jpg

Here in Prague we have postal tube system since 1887. It was in daily professional use up to 2002, when the system was damaged by flood.
The system was repaired and it is fully functional but not in use any more.
Today it is part of National technical heritage.
Here is the map showing the coverage of the city with tube postal system:

Pneumatic networks like this were still operating in London in 1980, at least one of them. I was running a pro video sales and hire operation in Tottenham Court Rd. and we had one of these systems - not quite the splendid beast seen in these photos - but in daily use for transferring invoices and payments to and from the accounts department.

Craftsmanship... it's one thing we are lacking so badly in this, our modern gotta-have-it-now-so-make-it-by-robot-so-I-can-have-it-now-and-cheap-too society.

Workmanship like this is why I love old machinery, old buildings, old cameras, all that sort of thing. Look at the way those tubes all have the exact same arc, the display of sheer skill on the part of the metal-worker as he brought into reality the vision of the architect/engineer. Back then, they took the time (and admittedly, were given the time) to GET IT RIGHT. Now, we put up with what we get, and suffer the consequences of having a dull and repetitive sameness, everywhere we go.

I think I was born about 90 years too late...

If you're not familiar with it, you should definitely check out the Paris Pneumatique - a network of pneumatic tubes that delivered mail and telegrams quickly all over Paris. Capsules could get from one end of the city to another in less than an hour. I don't think it's still operating, but it was until surprisingly recently (article below is from 1974, and it was at least partially in use still)


"...the pipes analogy is not completely off base...."

I've heard that said, but I don't buy it. Read Stevens' comments in more depth—it seems pretty clear he didn't have a clue what he was talking about. That wasn't just a misconstrued analogy.


An interesting read that includes some history of the pneumatic tube systems is The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage.
Standage gives a good history of the development of earlier communications systems before talking about the development of telegraphy. I learned a lot, including where the pneumatic tubes started - in London in the 1850s to get messages from the Stock Exchange to the Central Telegraph office more quickly than could be done by messenger. Stock trading was as interested in speed then as now!
I also learned that Edison got his start as a telegraph operator and developer of multiplexing on a single line.

Dear psu,

As a REALLY loose analogy, it's bearable, but trying to draw any conclusions from the analogy, as Stevens did, is on par with imagining that a packet collision leaves data debris scattered all along the information superhighway.

Amusing, yes. Informative, not so much.

If you support net neutrality it was dumb remark. If you don't it was a really dumb remark, because it makes the folks on that side of the debate appear to be ignorant idiots.

pax / Ctein

it seems pretty clear he didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

Yup. Nobody who gets an internet delivered to him can have any clue about the Internet. :)

Those things are astonishing, like Anglo-Saxon metalwork. I would have said that was over-engineering, but I think people had a revulsion for plain "ends" to things in those days ("indecorous", maybe?). And nobody would see them other than the operators!

It's interesting how that decorative impulse has waned over the last 100 years. Sewing machines, in particular, are an interesting study in the history of taste. My grandmother used to have a particularly gorgeous treadle-operated Singer which was engraved like a fancy shotgun, and mounted on a cast iron stand that was a thing of beauty in its own right.

Such tube systems survived in the UK until quite recent times -- I can remember seeing them in operation at cash tills in London detartment stores.


As usual, I wasn't not completely clear...

I have no doubt that *he* didn't know what he was talking about as was just parroting some canned text from a writer flunky.

My only point was that if you *did* know what you were talking about you could make the analogy work.

See the full history of the internets here:


"They didn't mess around in those days when it came to craftsmanship."

Or bandwidth or resolution.

I love looking at things like that, which are made to last and be appreciated, instead of just tossed away when the next new thing shows up. I am still confounded and irritated by the fact that repairing a television is now more expensive (to the user, anyway, if not the planet) than tossing it out and buying a new one.

(I've been spending a lot of time on steampunk sites lately, and while I roll my eyes a bit at the nonfunctional toys some folks like to make, there's a strong strand of longing for the days when things were made well and used well that speaks to me. I wish my Pentax DSLR was half as durable as my old Argus.)

The job title of the guys in the photo: middle man.

I'm pretty sure the highest bandwidth internet connection available is an A380 full of DVDs (or hard drives). But the latency on that sucker'll kill you.

This pneumatic tube system is a functional work of art. Look at that detail! Now, we consider ourselves fortunate when our beige, generic things even function properly.

In our rush to have it immediately and have it cheap, I believe we've lost much more than we have gained.

Ted was just upset because he'd heard Al Gore invented the internet...

A challenge to those who would ridicule Sen. Stevens's analogy: Explain the Internet in two sentences in such a way that (1) the causes of congestion are clear, and (2) your explanation is understandable by laypeople. No fair using "tubes" or "pipes".

A technical note: In low level network ("socket") programming, two main models are available: streams (like tubes), and datagrams (like trucks). The web uses streams.

(author of the book, "Advanced UNIX Programming")

Dear Dave,

I know you know this, but many folks here may not realize that this is of practical significance. There are quite a few people/businesses that need to send very large amounts of data on a regular basis. If you wish to move a terabyte of information from the Least Coast to the Left Coast overnight (and it's remarkable how many people do), either you pay for a 20 MB per second uplink (not common and not cheap) or you stick a terabyte (or a couple of 500 GB) 2.5 inch hard drive in an Express Mail envelope.

For most mortals, this will be the fastest and cheapest way to get that much data across the country. (And for folks who are afraid of things getting lost in the mail, you send two drives into envelopes–– the likely failure rate on two Express Mail packages is considerably less than the likely failure rate on a terabyte upload.)

For more ordinary folk, sticking an SDHC card in the mail is going to get that level of information to someone about as fast as their DSL would.

In the less practical realm, there was a lovely paper in Nature five or 10 years ago which analyzed the costs of doing interstellar communication and concluded, rather counterintuitively, that even with today's technology, sending physical media was cheaper than photons! Though, as you note, the latency is rather serious. But if you can wait a few thousand years instead of a few years for the data to get there, it's the cheaper way to go. Sort of the interstellar equivalent of Sea Mail.

It's a little mind-boggling to realize that moving gross matter around can be more efficient and cost-effective than shoving electrons or photons, but that's the way it is.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

You may be amused to find out that here in the LA area a group funded by the movie industry has been leasing "dark fiber" - that is unused fiber in cables already installed - to connect sound stages to studios to prevent the need of sending messengers back to the studio with disks for the daily rushes. CG houses, including those outside the US, must use the Internet for daily updates.
My younger son is a CG (computer graphics) programmer, now working for IL&M. While at SONY, he sat at a workstation that had a 10 gigabit/s connection. He told me the first Chronicles of Narnia movie totaled 129 terabytes of data, with 3 TB archived daily during the last month of production. He also worked on this year's Alice in Wonderland, where they had about 450 TB of data for the movie.
With files that size, moving by hard disk becomes somewhat impractical, but fiber at 1-10Gb/s works pretty well.

Dear J,

Half a petabyte. Impressive.

I've got friends at Pixar (Randy Nelson and Tom Duff, to name two) and the data sets they have to deal with are daunting. Still moving half a pet...

Even with a symmetric 10Gbit fiber connection, moving that movie takes about 5 days.

I don't think we'll see the pirates bit-torrenting that file. This year, anyway.

pax / Ctein

"Look at the way those tubes all have the exact same arc"

They have to have the same arc - because there's a minimum bend radius the containers can make it through. It has nothing to do with art whatsoever.

The comments to this entry are closed.