I work on the fourth floor of a building owned by an insurance company. It’s something over 20 storeys tall; it was built in the late 1960s. It’s one of those buildings where every floor has a mail slot in the wall in the hallway. If you trust the mail chute, you can drop a letter into it and it will land in a bin in the mail room on the ground floor.
If you walk past the mail slot, you will next reach the entrance to the men’s room. If you continue slightly farther, towards one of the back doors of my company’s office suite, you will pass a door with a metal plate on it that says Lamson Room.
For nearly a decade, I walked past that door and idly thought, “I wonder what that is,” but by the time I was in a position to look it up, I had forgotten about it. Lamson. Obviously someone’s name, but presumably an eponym? In a hotel, the Lamson Room could be a conference room or a dining room. My knowledge of the floor layout in the building told me that there wasn’t enough room for anything of that sort. Plus it was well inside and away from any windows.
No, clearly a Lamson was some kind of piece of equipment. But what? Some electric thing? What would a large building need? Was it even still functioning? Who or what had been on our floor before we moved in? It gave me a sense of something that radiated somehow. Perhaps because of LORAN or lambent? Or was it a laminating machine? The /læm/ gives such a feel of a soft hum. And of course it’s soft like a lamb – indeed, it may come from lamb, or it may come from Lambert, which originally meant ‘famous land’ (the lam is the part that means ‘land’). But the door was closed, and hard. It had just that metal nameplate on it. Lamson was a name of some forever opaque and obscure bit of equipment.
Yesterday the door was open.
The men’s room has been under renovation for a week, and perhaps the guys working on that had reason to go into the Lamson Room. I don’t know. But the door was slightly ajar. So I opened it and looked in.
The room was small, less than two metres square. It had another door on the left side of the back wall, a narrow one, with a NO ENTRY Authorized Personnel Only sign on it, and another sign declaring that it led to a Confined Space, with a reference to a regulation regarding that. Most of the rest of the wall at around waist height was occupied by two metal doors, about 50 cm square each, with a black panel in between with a knob, a button, and Operating Instructions. There were flat metal surfaces with rollers on them extending out from the doors, the one on the right farther than the one on the left. The metal doors were closed. They had fixed small knobs at bottom centre that suggested that they slid up.
On the left of the two doors was a sign telling people that if they were doing any work on the Lamson, it had to adhere to an SOP for hazardous work. Above that door was a handwritten sign listing FLOOR CHANGES, with four department names and their new floors.
I did not attempt to open any of the doors. I would be a lousy movie character.
But afterward, I finally looked up what a Lamson is.
It’s something that used to be a staple of large companies that needed to move papers or goods around rapidly within a building. Insurance companies probably don’t need them for moving papers around quickly anymore. No one was using this Lamson Room, anyway. Hospitals and similar places still often use them for getting things such as blood samples from one place to another quickly.
It’s a pneumatic tube system.
You put your documents or other material in a cylinder with bumpers on it and put it in a tube. The system sucks and blows the cylinder through the tube to the intended destination, where it drops out and slams on some surface. It’s not a simple gravity-feed chute. Papers put in on the fourth floor might swim upstream like Lamson salmon to the 20th.
Lamson is not the name of the person who invented it. Pneumatic tube systems were invented by William Murdoch in 1836. William Stickney Lamson opened a store in Massachusetts in 1879 and patented a system for moving cash across the premises using balls on tracks in 1881. In 1899 he bought up a company that made pneumatic tubes. This became his company’s main stock in trade. That soft name Lamson became synonymous with something hard and percussive and fast. (Well, slam is a soft word in the same way, and means something hard, too.) The company was bought up in 1976 and now the name – and product line – is owned by Quirepace.
You may not have known what a Lamson is. If you did, you may have thought they were a thing of the past. Well, the one in my building seems disused now, but businesses still have plenty of use for them. Just like another thing that insurance companies – including the one that owns the building I work in – have and use, that many people think are relics of the past: mainframes.
Update: There is an epilogue to this story.