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Palo Alto, California

Pneumatic Tubes at Stanford Hospital

Four miles of pipelines form the model of still-functioning retro-tech efficiency 

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Hidden within the walls of Stanford Hospital lies a secret Victorian visionaries would laud: over four miles of pneumatic tubing, used exclusively for transmitting data and specimens at high speeds throughout Stanford Hospital.

Pneumatic systems were originally designed in the 19th century to expedite goods (mainly paperwork) in situations where a faster-than-human pace of transport would be beneficial, such as post offices and department stores. Nowadays, hospitals all over the country make use of this seemingly-dated technology for the benefit of human health, but none more so than Stanford, whose system is among the largest remaining in operation.

Foot-long canisters zoom along, transporting everything from bodily fluids to medications up to a quarter mile away. While crossing the hospital’s vast premises, the containers reach speeds topping 18 miles per hour (25 feet per second). Blood is always given the highest priority (coded as “stat”).

Each nurse’s station is equipped with a sending/receiving unit, while 141 transfer points, 99 inter-zone connectors and 29 blowers move the samples from one stop to the next. Despite such complicated rigging, chief engineer Leander Robinson claims that no shuttle has ever gotten stuck en route.

Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.

Know Before You Go

Stanford Hospital & Clinics is located on the campus of Stanford University, about 20 miles north of San Jose and 40 miles south of San Francisco.

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