Wednesday, May 13, 2009

10 Geeky Ways to Deliver Mail: U.S. Postal Service Technology

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is facing a potential $6 billion deficit in 2009. Earlier this year it asked Congress to consider cutting a day of delivery from its six-day schedule. On May 11 the price of stamps will jump another 2 cents, and in Idaho, the last continental route serviced by bush plane is about to be cut. The USPS has a deep sense of history—since the first Postmaster General was put in place in 1775, the USPS has changed its structure and delivery methods numerous times thanks to war, economic turmoil and emerging new technologies. Here, we look at 10 of the geekiest ways the postal service has delivered the mail.

Mule Mail
19th century-present

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
Animals have always played a major role in delivery services—from the Pony Express to horse-drawn carriages—but only one beast is still hauling mail today. A handful of donkeys and deliverymen still embark on a six- to eight-hour journey through the Grand Canyon five days a week to deliver mail and other supplies to residents of Supai, Arizona. This is the last route being serviced by mules.

Pneumatic Mail Tubes

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
New York, Boston, St. Louis, Chicago and Philadelphia all relied on an underground system of pneumatic tubes to move mail during the early 20th century. The two-foot long canisters held 600 letters as they moved through the tubes at speeds up to 35 mph. There were about 27 miles of pneumatic tubes running through New York City, including routes stretched across the Brooklyn Bridge, linking Manhattan with Brooklyn. The proliferation of delivery trucks and expanding urban centers contributed to the demise of this system. Private contractors leased the pneumatic tubes to the USPS, and by 1934 rates were as high as $19,000 per mile per year. Today, many of the tubes remain intact under city streets.

The Snowbird

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
Though this vehicle was never officially part of the USPS fleet, a handful of carriers relied on the Model-T Snowbird attachment kit to plod along snowy routes, providing an alternative to horse-and-sleigh. Snowmobiles are still used in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Alaska for winter deliveries.

Highway Post Office Bus

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
This post office on wheels was inspired by railroad service and designed to reduce lag time by allowing postal workers to sort parcels while in transit. The first batch of buses, built by the White Motor Company, came equipped with distributing tables, letter cases and enough space to hold 150 mail sacks. Advances in automated sorting and a major restructuring of the postal system eliminated the need for on-the-go organization. In the early 1970s the decision was made that mail would be sent to a central location where high-speed sorters would route it.

Victory Mail

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
In order to keep correspondences flowing between soldiers and the home front without sacrificing precious cargo space, the postal service introduced stationery that was shrunken into microfilm before being shipped. Upon arrival, the letters were enlarged to a fraction of their original size, sorted and delivered. A single sack of V-Mail was the equivalent of 37 sacks of regular mail, although letters were limited to 700 words.

The Mailster

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
The Mailster was a three-wheeled vehicle that weighed 500 pounds, boasted 7.5 hp and allowed each delivery person to haul an unprecedented 500 pounds of mail. Its compact size and maneuverability were ideal for getting around recently developed suburban areas. By the end of the 1950s, one-third of the USPS fleet was comprised of this vehicle. While higher-ups in the postal service were more than enthusiastic about the Mailster's potential, the people actually driving it hated it, according to Nancy Pope of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Complaints from letter carriers assigned to Mailsters ranged from the front wheel getting stuck in trolley tracks to constant breakdowns, Pope says, and even one report of a massive dog toppling the vehicle. After many complaints and malfunctions, the postal service opted for the more reliable and sturdy Jeep to serve as the centerpiece of its fleet.

Missile Mail

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
In the years following the second World War, the volume of mail increased by more than 30 percent. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield called for a new means of delivery to satisfy the growing demand—from this, Missile Mail was born. On June 8, 1959, the Navy submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile filled with 300 commemorative letters off the coast of Florida. The missile made a flawless descent after soaring for 22 minutes, but the letters still would have needed to be removed, transported, sorted and routed had it been an actual delivery. Following a successful demonstration, Summerfield declared, "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." Despite the success of the initial experiment, the USPS never revisited the idea of missile mail.


(Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Soon after it was unveiled in 2001, the Segway was introduced as an experimental vehicle into the U.S. postal fleet. By attaching courier bags, the Segway promised to reduce physical strains associated with lugging sacks of mail while increasing the rate of delivery. But experiments in Virginia quickly proved that it wasn't efficient for deliveries. While a sidewalk in disrepair or curb can be tricky enough on a Segway, a flight of steps is impossible. Also, in areas where a letter carrier would just walk across front lawns, they were now forced to go up and down every driveway. The postal service eventually abandoned experiments with the Segway.

USPS and EVs

(Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
The USPS has had their eyes on electric vehicles for a few years, with a number of plans still in motion. In 2006 the USPS tested a 2-ton van developed by the Azure Company, but the test was short-lived and inconclusive, according to a postal service spokesperson. In April, Chrysler announced its intent to apply for a federal grant that would allow it to build a fleet of electric postal minivans. Ruth Goldway of the United States Postal Regulatory Commission has also been pushing for stimulus money to go toward transforming the postal fleet to electric. By converting 142,000 delivery trucks, Goldway wrote in a New York Times editorial, the USPS would save 68 million gallons of gasoline.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Within the next 10 years more than 140,000 postal vehicles will be retired, leaving vacancies that need to be filled. The USPS is currently testing a third-generation GM hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that's based on the Chevy Equinox. While hydrogen vehicles have much potential, says Darlene S. Casey, a USPS spokesperson, they have a long way to go, particularly when it comes to the necessary infrastructure.


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