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Whoosh: Pneumatic Tubes Give The Tooth Fairy A Boost

The pneumatic transport system, which carries a capsule from one end to the other, is controlled by a valve and an iPhone app. The app also includes sending options for the Easter Bunny and Santa, although they haven't been developed yet. (Jeff Highsmith)

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When Jeff Highsmith would lose a tooth as a young boy, he would place it under his pillow, fall asleep and always wake up the next morning to a gift in its place. It was a pretty standard procedure, as far as the Tooth Fairy goes.

But with kids of his own who are starting to have wiggly teeth, he decided it was time to reinvent the tradition.

After all, does the Tooth Fairy even have time for personal pillow visits anymore? "It seemed prudent to figure out a way to send the teeth to her for processing, rather than make her visit the homes of all 7,103,000,000 people on Earth," Highsmith wrote in a blog post for Make magazine.

So he built an intricate contraption that allowed his sons to send their teeth to the busy fairy — and, of course, receive a gift in exchange.

"Really, I just wanted to make the whole Tooth Fairy tradition more fun for all of us," he says.

For Highsmith, fun was a construction project. He cut squares in the walls of his sons' rooms, ran PVC pipes through the attic, attached a vacuum to it, and — voila — the pneumatic tooth transport was born.

Pneumatic transports are most recognizable from drive-through teller lanes at banks, the kind where drivers put money in a capsule that zooms through a tube to the other end. Highsmith's version is smaller, but the mechanics are the same.

(Pneumatic tube transport is enjoying a kind of renaissance these days, since part of the science behind it is also powering Elon Musk's Hyperloop proposal.)

Highsmith built an iPhone app that controls the vacuum system, so that his sons can tap the screen to send their dental offering along. When the capsule makes it to the other end of the pneumatic transport, Highsmith steps out of the room, swaps the tooth for some coins or toys, and sends it back.

No surprises here: His kids love it.

So did commenters on his Make instruction video. "Hey other parents, you don't have to make any effort to make your kids happy for the rest of this year since this guy clearly just won parent of the year," someone wrote on YouTube. A Make reader called him "the most incredible father/parent alive."

Highsmith likes the compliments, but he thinks they kind of miss the point. "Just because I make a pneumatic transport for my kids doesn't make me the world's best dad," he says. "There are lots of ways to do things with your kids, and they don't all involve building stuff."

In fact, the video intentionally lacks step-by-step instructions on how to build the system. People won't be able to do exactly what he did, but that's OK, Highsmith says. He simply wants to inspire others to be creative and try learning new skills.

"I want people to get their hands on the world around them," he says. "I demonstrate running a marathon and maybe inspire other people to get off the couch and run a mile."

And he wants people to include their own kids in their projects to encourage creativity, he says. But he's keeping the mechanics of the Tooth Fairy project a secret — for now, at least. "We'll have to come clean at some point."

Emily Siner is an intern on NPR's Digital News desk.

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