You know the systems—the tubes that shoot canisters full of receipts cash deposits and the occasional safety pop back and forth from the teller in those drive-through banking transactions. Pneumatic tubes are not a new idea—according to io9's awesome brief history of pneumatic tube transport systems, the earliest recorded experiments with vacuum were conducted by an Arab philosopher named Al-Farabi in the 9th century AD.
But the best thing about the article is an in-depth breakdown of inventor Alfred Ely Beach's prototypes for mass transit. He is best known for his invention of New York City's first concept for a subway: the Beach Pneumatic Transit and also happened to be the publisher of Scientific American. Follow along as Beach goes from idea (an op-ed piece published in 1849 for an underground subway powered by horse-drawn carriages) to prototyping his first pneumatic concept for the 1867 American Institute Fair to his final masterpiece, opened in February 1870:
Beach unveiled his masterpiece, and it was an immediate novelty attraction for the public, especially given the luxury of the station: it boasted a grand piano, chandeliers, and a fully operational fountain stocked with goldfish. He charged 25 cents for a block long ride, and fought for the next three years to get a construction permit to extend the line uptown all the way to Central Park.
Read the full article for a more detailed history of pneumatic transport (including 34-miles of Prague's pneumatic post system) and a straight forward explanation of the mechanics.
BONUS: Put your history knowledge to work and build your own pneumatic projectile launcher (aka a potato cannon!) using some PVC pipes. Check out the video from Scientific Tuesdays after the jump.