Design Through Time

DC Thomson’s Pneumatic Tubes

View of Meadowside from the Howff, Poppy Jarratt

DC Thomson’s papers have been a Dundee staple since 1905. But would you believe me if I told you that the company’s latest stories and urgent messages used to whizz beneath our feet?

In 1799, Scottish engineer William Murdoch invented pneumatic transportation. He discovered that compressed air could propel objects through tubes. Using this knowledge, the Victorians built “capsule pipelines” to transport telegrams. It proved to be so successful that inventors continued to develop Murdoch’s design: Josiah Latimer Clark’s advancements in 1854 allowed larger objects—like parcels—to be carried through the tubes, and in 1870, Joseph William Wilmot’s improvements meant multiple messages could be carried through the pipes at once.

These tubes might sound like a bizarre contraption ripped from the pages of the Beano, but the pipelines provided an easy and secure way to transport goods between offices. Stores could safely send money to the cash office, reassured the day’s earnings wouldn’t be lost or stolen on its journey. For penny-pinching business owners, it removed the cost of employing messengers to carry documents between offices. It was much quicker too. Packages could move almost five times faster through the tubes than when being delivered on foot! Although the digital age has introduced new file-transfer methods, hospitals and NASA still use the convenient pneumatic tubes.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, the capsule pipelines proved ideal for DC Thomson. It allowed artists based in the Bank Street art department to instantly deliver drawings to editors in the Meadowside headquarters. Documents would be rolled up and placed inside a sturdy canister. A cap would then be screwed on and loaded into the transport tube before rocketing to its receiving station.

While the thought of a secret communication system zooming beneath our feet is exciting, Dundee’s capsule pipelines are surrounded by grizzly rumours. The Howff sits between the publisher’s central offices. This presented the difficult challenge of installing pipes beneath the graveyard. You might have heard about a mysterious white substance appearing as workers laid the pipes beneath the graves. Or perhaps you’ve heard whispers about bone fragments being delivered alongside the paperwork. Whether the ghoulish truth or local legend, the introduction of e-mail means correspondence can now pass through the publishing house without disturbing the dead! 

Words and research by Kirsten Murray