A century ago, futurists predicted that pneumatic tubes would be the transportation systems of tomorrow. That idea never came to fruition - until recently. Stanford University's medical center uses a 4-mile-long pneumatic tube delivery system. And it saves lives.

Before the tubes were installed in the mid-1990s, Stanford had a team of 20 people who ran samples from doctors' offices and operating rooms to the lab. But as the hospital expanded, it became impossible for humans to run fast enough - especially with delicate blood samples that can't change temperature before analysis. So the university turned to yesterday's futuristic technology. With an 98.8 percent uptime and packet speeds of 18 mph, this pneumatic tube system is a physical information network that is invaluable for surgeons who need samples analyzed in real time during operations.

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According to Stanford School of Medicine:

Its architecture is a sophisticated design of switching points, waiting areas, sending and receiving points. It hosts 124 stations (every nursing unit has its own); 141 transfer units, 99 inter-zone connectors and 29 blowers. To help alert employees to the arrival of containers, the system has more than three dozen different combinations of chiming tones . . . Leander Robinson, the hospital's chief engineer, commands the system from a small basement office, where computer monitors light up every time someone puts a container in a chute, types in a numerical address and presses the "send" button. The screen displays a tiny icon that reflects the container's travel through various switches and transfers, but it moves so quickly it's actually hard to track its passage. Even during the heaviest flow through the system, between noon and 2 p.m., a container can cover the longest start-to-finish distance-1,500 feet-in less than three minutes.

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Unlike most pneumatic systems, which relay documents, Stanford's is purely for samples: everything from tissue to blood. Here's what the packet wrappers look like:

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Just goes to show that even old futurist dreams can eventually come true.

via Stanford University