You’ve Got Mail: Grilled, Scrambled, And Other Delicious Stamps

Well, we’re just zipping right through this series, no? So far we’ve looked at various postal machines and how they work to flip mail around, cancel the postage, and sort it, all in a matter of seconds. We explored the first automated post office and found out why it was a failure, and we learned why it all depends on ZIP code. Now, it’s finally time for some really fun stuff: the stamp trivia.

Now I’m no philatelist by any standard, though I do have a few hundred stamps strewn about the house. The danger in philately is that you learn all sorts of cool things about stamps and their history, and you just want to buy more and more of them. So let’s go!

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You’ve Got Mail: It All Depends On ZIP Code

Previously on You’ve Got Mail, we looked at a few services that were designed to speed up the mail at various points along the way. But these improvements were all taking place on the USPS’ side of the the fence. Was there anything the customer could be doing to help out?

A post card from my collection.

As it turns out, yes. And it was almost too late. Whereas you could once address a letter or postcard simply to “Fred Minke, Somerset, Wis.” and it would reach him, the volume of mail was getting completely out of hand with the rise of computers, automated billing, and advertising. Something was needed to improve routing and speed up delivery.

We all know enough about ZIP codes to use them, but where did they come from? How many types are out there? What do they even mean? Let’s find out.

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You’ve Got Mail: Faster And Faster We Go

When we last left the post office, they had implemented OCR to read even the sloppiest of handwriting. And to augment today’s 99% accuracy rate, there’s a center full of humans who can decipher the rest of those messy addresses with speed and aplomb. Before that, we took a look at many of the machines that make up the automated side of the post office’s movements. But what was being done to improve the customer experience during all of this time?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. In this installment, we’ll take a look at the development of vending machines and programs like Speed Mail, Missile Mail, and V-Mail (no, not voicemail!) as they relate to enhanced customer service over the years.

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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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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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