Retrotechtacular: Reading and Sorting Mail Automatically

We often read about the minicomputers of the 1960s, and see examples of their use in university research laboratories or medium-sized companies where they might have managed the accounts. It’s tempting though to believe that much of the world in those last decades of the analogue era remained untouched by computing, only succumbing in the decade of the microcomputer, or of the widespread use of the Internet.

What could be more synonymous with the pre-computing age than the mail system? Hundreds of years of processing hand-written letters, sorted by hand, transported by horses, boats, railroads and then motor transport, then delivered to your mailbox by your friendly local postman. How did minicomputer technology find its way into that environment?

Thus we come to today’s film, a 1970 US Postal Service short entitled “Reading And Sorting Mail Automatically”. In it we see the latest high-speed OCR systems processing thousands of letters an hour and sorting them by destination, and are treated to a description of the scanning technology.

If a Hackaday reader in 2017 was tasked with scanning and OCR-ing addresses, they would have high-resolution cameras and formidable computing power at their disposal. It wouldn’t be a trivial task to get it right, but it would be one that given suitable open-source OCR software could be achieved by most of us. By contrast the Philco engineers who manufactured the Postal Service’s ┬áscanners would have had to create them from scratch.

This they performed in a curiously analogue manner, with a raster scan generated by a CRT. First a coarse scan to identify the address and its individual lines, then a fine scan to pick out the line they needed. An optical sensor could then pick up the reflected light and feed the information back to the computer for processing.

The description of the OCR process is a seemingly straightforward one of recognizing the individual components of letters which probably required some impressive coding to achieve in the limited resources of a 1960s minicomputer. The system couldn’t process handwriting, instead it was reserved for OCR-compatible business mail.

Finally, the address lines are compared with a database of known US cities and states, and each letter is routed to the appropriate hopper. We are shown a magnetic drum data store, the precursor of our modern hard drives, and told that it holds an impressive 10 megabytes of data. For 1970, that was evidently a lot.

It’s quaint to see what seems to be such basic computing technology presented as the last word in sophistication, but the truth is that to achieve this level of functionality and performance with the technology of that era was an extremely impressive achievement. Sit back and enjoy the film, we’ve placed it below the break.

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Waiting For A Letter? This IoT Mailbox Will Tell You Exactly When It Arrives.

If you’re waiting for a much sought-after letter, checking your mailbox every five minutes can be a roller-coaster of emotion — not to mention time-consuming. If you fall into this trap, user [CuriosityGym] as whipped up a mailbox that will send off an email once the snail-mail arrives.

The project uses an Arduino Uno, an ESP 8266 wifi module, and an idIoTware shield board — making specific use of its RGB LED and light dependent resistor(LDR). Configuring the RGB LED on the idIoTware board to a steady white light sets the baseline for the LDR, and when a letter is dropped in the box, the change in brightness is registered by the LDR, triggering the Arduino to send off the email.

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Make Your Mailman Nervous With a Wifi Enabled Mailbox

“It’s not a bomb,” the mailman whispered to himself as he reached for [atxguitarist]’s mailbox, giving a nervous glance at the small black box stuck to the side. “This is THAT┬áhouse, it’s not a bomb. I’m sure it’s not a bomb,” he muttered as a cold bead of sweat ran down his neck. His hand approached slowly, shakily. The mailman gathered courage, then, in a single quick movement, opened the box. He sighed relief as nothing happened. Somewhere in [atxguitarist]’s house a recording wailed “You’ve got mail!”

The mailbox enhancement in question is a hacked Amazon Dash Button in a project box. When the door of the mailbox is opened, a magnetic reed switch simulates a button press on the Dash. The Dash transmodulates the signal into WiFi pixies which are received by a Raspberry Pi. The Pi’s sole purpose in life is to run a 24-line Python script that plays the famous sound from AOL’s mail software and sends a notification to his phone.

Aside from unnerving the mailman, it’s a cool hack and keeps you from slugging it out there in the cold or rain to witness an empty box.

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Hacker sends this through the mail to record a video of the process

[Ruben van der Vleuten] wanted to get a look at the adventure a package experiences when shipped from one place to another. So he threw together this mishmash of components to record the experience. We certainly enjoyed watching the fast motion video found after the break. We wonder what the shipping agency thinks about this sort of thing?

Camera, digital storage, and battery technology have gotten to the point that it’s both cheap and easy to do this sort of surveillance. But there are a few logistical things that [Ruben] took into account to make this work quite well. First off, he need to hide the camera in a way that would ensure the package didn’t look suspicious. He ended up writing his name on the side of the box and boring a hole through one of the black letters which is smaller than a pea and very hard to spot. To make sure he wasn’t recording a ton of empty (dark) frames he also included electronics to sense motion. When the package is moving the video is always rolling. when not moving the hardware wakes for just 3 seconds every minute to shoot video.

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Snail mail notification system

[Mime] lives on one of the upper levels of an apartment complex. The mailboxes, being located at the ground floor can be somewhat inconvenient to check regularly. [Mime] decided to rig up a device to let him know when his mailbox had been accessed. He started with a wireless doorbell, thinking he could use the door side button inside his mailbox as a trigger with only some slight modification. On the receiver side, he wanted an LED to flash, letting him know that it was time to check his mail. One simple circuit and a self blinking LED later and the whole setup was finished. Great job [Mime]