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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.