You’ve Got Mail: Reading Addresses With OCR

Last time I delivered on this column, I told you about the USPS’ attempts to fully automate a post office. Of course, that’s a bit of a misnomer, since it took 1,500 employees to actually operate the place on a daily basis. Although Project Turnkey in Rhode Island and Project Gateway in California were proving grounds for all kinds of mail sorting and processing equipment, the act of actually reading addresses and routing mail to its final destination still required human intervention and hand coding.

Today, the post office processes hundreds of millions of mail pieces each day using various pieces of equipment. One of those important pieces of equipment is the OCR address reader, which manages to make sense of all kinds of chicken scratch.

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You’ve Got Mail: Automatic For The People

When we last left the post office, I told you all about various kinds of machinery the USPS uses to move mail around. Today I’m going to tell you about the time they thought they could automate nearly every function inside the standard post office — and no, it wasn’t anytime recently.

By 1953, the post office badly needed modernization. When Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield was appointed that year, he found the system essentially in shambles. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, the USPS had done absolutely no spending beyond the necessary, with little to no investment in the future. But Summerfield was an ideas man, and he had the notion to build a totally automated post office. One of them would be located in Providence, Rhode Island and be known as Project Turnkey — as in a turnkey operation. The other would be located in Oakland, California, and serve as a gateway to the Pacific.

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You’ve Got Mail: Straining The Limits Of Machine And Man

When we last left this subject, I told you all about Transorma, the first letter-sorting machine in semi-wide use. But before and since Transorma, machines have come about to perform various tasks on jumbled messes of mail — things like distinguishing letters from packages, making sure letters are all facing the same way before cancelling the postage, and the gargantuan task of getting huge piles of mail into the machines in the first place. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

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You’ve Got Mail: Sorting And The USPS

Snail mail. You may not think much of it these days, but the mail doesn’t stop and it never has. Every type of mail from postcards and letters to large envelopes and packages of all sizes moves every single day all over the US, even though it isn’t typically delivered on Sundays. Dealing with the ever-increasing volume of physical mail has called for the invention and evolution of automatic mail sorting machines that are used by both postal facilities and businesses alike.

While mail sorting machines have grown and matured over the years, the human element of the task remains intact. As long as people type addresses, write them by hand, and/or print them in handwriting fonts by the hundreds, there will need to be humans on hand to verify at least a few of them that are really hard to read.

There are roughly a dozen different types of mail sorting machines in 2023. In this series, we’re going to take a look at most of them, along with many other aspects of the United States Postal Service and its history.

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