Prawns, Pavlova and the Pneumatic Tube System

When the current Royal Adelaide Hospital building was constructed, it was fitted with a state of the art Pneumatic Tube System (PTS). This system included more than 3km of tubing connecting 74 different stations.

A PTS is a network of tubing which allows cylindrical containers carrying small pathology and pharmacy items to be quickly and securely delivered to clinical areas of the hospital using compressed air or a partial vacuum.

The old RAH hospital building also used a PTS. It was first fitted with a system in the late 1960s, this system was not very reliable, and a new system replaced it sometime later.

The 1960s Pneumatic Tube System

The Later System

Pneumatic Tube Station, SA Pathology, 2015.
The Pneumatic Tube Station, Ward C8 Renal and Transplant Ward, Level 8, East Wing, old Royal Adelaide Hospital, 2017. AR#6389

Staff would sometimes use the PTS for less official purposes, sending messages to friends in other wards or to deliver a bite to eat.

Elizabeth Sloggett who trained at the Royal Adelaide Hospital as a nurse in the 1970s recollected one instance where the system was perhaps pushed a little too far.

I remember I did night duty every Christmas and New Year, and one year, second year nights, and it was forty two degrees, and we were sending everything through the pneumatic tube – pavlovas, 50ml. syringes with a bit of bubbly, prawns, all sorts of things. And the tubes came screaming to a halt at about one o’clock in the morning , and they didn’t free them up until about 11 o’clock the next day. I remember this very angry note from Miss Spry [Pamela Spry, Director of Nursing 1974-1984] ‘The pneumatic tube system is NOT to be used for anything other than – – -‘ Beacuse I can imagine the poor maintenance guys freeing this prawn that had been in 40 degree heat! I think it was just one of those stoppages that occured, but because we had food transported in it, made an issue of it.

Elizabeth Sloggett, from oral history conducted by Joan Durdin on the 8 November 1996.

The 1960s system delivery containers were wooden and had a system for identifying the sender and receiver. The containers were labelled with the home station and then a twistable array of letters and numbers could be used to select the receiving station. The later system used plastic cannisters.

Pneumatic Carrier System – Container, Ca 1970. AR#5907
Pneumatic Carrier System – Container, Ca 2017 AR#6259

Written by Jonathan Hull, CALHN Health Museum