Berlin’s largest hospital doesn’t need the internet to deliver medical care quickly and effectively. Kilometres of steel pipes are doing the job.
When walking through the sterile halls of Charité Hospital in Mitte, you don’t hear or see them, but they are everywhere, running through the ceiling and the walls. About 2300 capsules are sent every day from unit to unit through 26 kilometres of steel pipes.
Since the main hospital bed building was constructed in 1982, the capsules have been used to transport blood and urine samples, medication, chip cards, plain pieces of paper… “Anything lighter than a kilogram,” guarantees technician Gerd Gohlke. “As long as it’s small enough to fit in the capsules, which are about 20cm long.” He and his colleague Frank Matthias take care of the whole network, keeping track of each capsule’s whereabouts from their computer in the control centre.
So how does it work? The capsules are propelled through the network pneumatically, via a system of compressed air and partial vacuums. “It’s like a giant vacuum cleaner,” laughs Matthias. If a nurse or a doctor want a blood sample to be analysed, they don’t have to wait for a courier to take it to the lab, as they would have before the tube system was in place. They put the sample into the capsule, code it on the transponder and dial the lab’s number.
Capsules are first vacuumed into the control centre in the basement, then blown back upstairs at a speed of about 10m per second.
When a capsule is sent from one of the building’s 140 stations, it’s first vacuumed into the control centre in the basement, then blown back upstairs at a speed of about 10m per second. Only three minutes are needed for a sample to travel to the lab from the intensive care unit. “As it’s a closed system, nothing can get lost,” claims Matthias. “Even if you dial the wrong number, we have a record of every move.”
This almost-perfect system is pretty old. The first pneumatic dispatch was set up in 1853 in London, between the stock exchange and the telegraphic office. “The traders noticed that they could find out more quickly about what was happening in the business world,” explains Dietmar Arnold of the local historical association Berliner Unterwelten. “The couriers were too slow, and there were no telephones back then.”
Germany’s first line came in 1865. As in London, it was set up between the main telegraphic office on Französische Straße and the old Berlin stock exchange near Hackescher Markt. By the early 1940s, Berlin had 400km of pipes, the largest network behind Paris, and about eight million capsules – from letters to telegrams, postcards to cheques – dispatched every year. It was three times more expensive than the standard post, but also much faster. “You could send a love letter from Gesundbrunnen to Tempelhof in 26 minutes, with one change in the main telegraphic office,” explains Arnold.
Because of damage caused by World War II and the development of telephone networks, West Berlin stopped using its pneumatic system in 1963. Thirteen years later, the same thing happened in East Berlin. But the idea lived on. Before Charité adopted their pipe system, it was already in use at the Benjamin Franklin hospital in Steglitz, built between 1959 and 1968.
Charité is not the only place in Berlin where the pipes are still being used – you’ll find similar ones in supermarkets, casinos and even the federal chancellery, the Bundeskanzleramt, where civil servants use them about 1800 times a week for urgent documents. Compared to emails and phone calls, the pneumatic system guarantees total privacy, ideal for any government that doesn’t want to be spied on
Has anything changed with digitalisation at Charité? “There are fewer capsules than before,” admits Gohlke. For example, the pipes are no longer used to transport dietary preferences. Previously, patients had to make a cross on a piece of paper indicating what they could and couldn’t eat, and that paper was sent with a capsule to the hospital canteen – now, of course, that’s all done digitally. According to Gohlke, though, the pneumatic system will still be used in the foreseeable future, the other alternative being actual physical couriers. “We’ll always need to send original documents, like prescriptions, and I don’t see how we could transport blood more easily. I really don’t think that this system can disappear.” Probably not – until teleportation is invented.