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The CIA Museum … Artifacts: Pneumatic-Tube Carrier

The CIA Museum is home to many interesting artifacts associated with the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services; foreign intelligence organizations; and the CIA itself. The following article is the second in a series that will explore the Agency’s amazing history through the artifacts in the CIA Museum. This article focuses on the pneumatic-tube carrier.

* * * * *

Long before e-mail existed, CIA officers sent written communication to their colleagues by using a pneumatic-tube system for delivering mail. They simply placed their message in a special carrier and dropped the carrier in the shoot, and it was sent hurtling through miles of steel tubing to its destination.


Building the System

The pneumatic-tube system was installed by Lamson Corporation of Syracuse, New York, during the construction of the Original Headquarters Building (OHB) in the late 1950s. The system had many astounding facts and figures associated with it, including:

  • More than 30 miles of 4-inch steel tubing, which was enough to reach from CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia to Manassas, Virginia
  • Approximately 150 receiving and dispatching stations throughout the building from the ground floor to the seventh floor
  • Vacuum-driven carriers that moved at 30 feet per second through the network of tubes
  • More than 7,500 trips a day and 1.3 million trips annually
  • One of the largest systems of its kind in the world.

In order to operate and maintain the pneumatic-tube system, the Agency had to recruit a staff from the Washington Post Office and the Washington Navy Yard. These recruits had experience in electronics and general mechanics. The original staff consisted of 11 workers.


The Four Carrier Systems

Four separate carrier systems composed the pneumatic-tube system:

  • A System with amber-colored carriers
  • B System with green-colored carriers
  • C System with red-colored carriers
  • D System with metal carriers used for sending mail directly between two tube stations only.

The D System was similar to those used today at bank drive-up windows and operated 24 hours a day. The A System was by far the largest, with about 100 stations. Systems A, B, and C were fully automatic. Any tube station in a system could send to any other station in the same system.


CarriersPneumatic Tube

The carrier tubes measured 14 ½ inches long and could easily accommodate most mail items. Each receiving/dispatching station had at least four carriers; some had as many as 25. Overall, there were between 1,000 and 1,200 carriers in the system.


Make Way for the Computer

The pneumatic-tube carrier system operated for nearly 30 years. It served the Agency workforce well by making rapid inter-office mail possible throughout the Headquarters building. The system was shut down in 1989. It required a lot of space, had become too expensive to maintain, and was no longer needed as more modern e-mail systems now operated throughout CIA Headquarters.

To this day, the steel tubing remains in the walls of the Headquarters building.

The CIA Museum currently has carriers on display, including one in the CIA Director’s Suite.

To view a picture of a carrier and see other artifacts, visit the CIA Museum Virtual Tour.

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Posted: Oct 22, 2009 11:56 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:17 PM