The Pneumatic Postal Service of Paris

Telegram sent by pneumatic tube, Wikimedia Commons

I love all the research that goes with writing historical novels, because you find out so many fascinating things. The small details are often crucial in conveying the period feel. But a lot of this research has to be discarded and can’t be used in the book, so I like to give a little flavour of it in these posts.

We all know that “un pneu” means a tyre in French. Did you know that it also came to be used to mean a telegram sent along tubes by pneumatic means?

A great leap forward in communications technology took place in the early 19th century with the invention of the electric telegraph. However, the advantage of speed was lost if it then took a long time to get the telegram from the telegraph station to its destination. This was of importance in financial transactions on major stock exchanges in cities where horse-drawn traffic clogged the streets.

A Scottish inventor devised a pneumatic tube in the 1830s, in which objects were propelled by compressed air. This system was first used in London in 1853 to send telegrams in sealed cylinders along the 220-yard tube to the London Stock Exchange. It was quickly adopted by other cities, including Paris in 1866. Within a decade, a network of pneumatic tubes had burrowed its way throughout inner Paris, using sewers, rail and Metro lines.

Pneumatic tube network in Paris in 1888. Wikimedia Commons, Louise Figuier (public domain)

A hit with the public

The postal service opened up the pneumatic facility to the public in 1879 and introduced special mailboxes and pneumatique stationery. The “pneu” arrived at the telegraph office nearest to the recipient and was delivered by a messenger. The pneu was also known for a long time as le petit bleu, since the letter-card was on blue paper for several years.

Machine for sending and receiving pneumatic telegrams

The system was a hit with the public. By the 1930s, almost 300 miles of pneumatic tubes existed throughout Paris. However, the service became increasingly impractical and costly to run and was overtaken by telex and fax, so it was discontinued in Paris in 1984. Le pneu had had its day.

Important role in a cause célèbre

A pneu played an important role in the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish officer was wrongly accused of passing military secrets to the Germans in 1894. New evidence in the shape of a torn-up pneu came to light in 1896, showing that another French officer, Esterhazy, was in fact the culprit. Dreyfus was finally exonerated, and his army commission reinstated, in 1906.   

I was rather sorry that I couldn’t use the terminology in Overture, in which some of the action takes place by telegram. In an early draft, I did actually have the messenger say, “Pneu for Madame Vernet.” However, I would then have had to explain to bemused readers what a pneu was, and footnotes don’t do the business in fiction. With regret, I replaced it with the more mundane “telegram”.

You might also like:

The Transport Crisis in Paris 1900-14: An Unlikely-Sounding Problem

From Rural France to Paris: Les Bougnats

Marie-Thérèse’s France 2: Paris

Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2019, all rights reserved.

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