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How the Postman Almost Owned E-Mail

A short history of the Postal Service’s long relationship with electronic mail.

Imagine that the U.S. Postal Service was in charge of e-mail. Sound absurd? It does to most people-until they realize that it almost happened.

In 1977, when I first came to Washington, DC, I joined the communications policy program of the Aspen Institute, where I was assigned to research how the impending telecommunications revolution would affect postal service. Instead of muddling through backwater, I uncovered a goldmine of plans and policy dilemmas.

The Postal Service had considered electronic mail ever since the invention of the telegraph. The 1845 telegraph line between DC and Baltimore was operated by the Post Office Department, which urged that the government run the telegraph system. A provision in the telegraph legislation of 1866 authorized the government to purchase existing telegraph plants after 1871.

In 1892, Postmaster General John Wanamaker proposed, in effect, a mailgram service: postal telegraph messages would be collected and delivered by the Postal Service, with the long-distance telegraph service provided by private companies under contract to the Postal Service. Wanamaker even suggested that the postal telegraph system might someday offer a facsimile service. None of these proposals made headway, however, because of Western Union’s then-powerful private monopoly with revenues in 1890 of $20 million, which represented one-third of the postal system’s total revenues.

Aside from one brief wartime operation in 1918, the next government experiment with electronic mail delivery occurred in 1959 when the Post Office tested Speed Mail. This was a facsimile experiment between Washington, DC and Chicago in which government agency mail was transmitted using facilities supplied by private telecommunications carriers. Western Union strongly protested, and in 1962 the Kennedy Administration killed the experiment.

But only after 1971, when the U.S. Post Office Department was replaced by the newly-formed U.S. Postal Service (USPS), did the Postal Service look hard at e-mail as an opportunity. The argument for USPS authority in electronic mail service stemmed from the rather broad provisions of the Postal Reform Act of 1970. The act required the Postal Service to “promote modern and efficient operations and [avoid] any practicewhich restricts the user of new equipment or devices which may reduce the cost or improve the quality of postal services…”

The House Subcommittee on Postal Facilities, Mail and Labor Management stated that “In the next few years, postal managers will make vitally important decisions which will determine the direction which the USPS will take when technology in the form of electronic transfer and other advances change the role of the organization.”

E-mail to the Rescue?

In the mid-1970s I argued that the USPS could be a logical manager of a household electronic message delivery system, but added this cautionary note: “The USPS has not developed the skills to capitalize on whatever its charter may allow in the telecommunications area. It seems most likely, therefore, that we shall continue to let private enterprise lead the way to electronic mail service to the home. Such private competition has the promise of the most important benefit-the fullest possible play for innovative technology and services.”

In January 1982, my worst fears concerning the Postal Service began to unfold when it introduced Electronic Computer-Originated Mail. E-COM was a message system designed to serve volume mailers, such as Shell Oil and Merrill Lynch, by generating mail from data stored electronically. The service rolled out to 25 post offices and transmitted the messages to other cities, which then transformed them into hard copy and delivered them within two days. The Postal Service was to be the active agent in E-COM, involved with all aspects of management.

Immediately, I took to my trusty Smith Corona typewriter to let the world know that the camel’s nose was moving into the tent. The New York Times published my op-ed piece, in which I called for the Reagan Administration to “curb big mail, too” by proposing legislation that would bar the Postal Service from providing future end-to-end electronic mail service.

Amazingly, I soon had my answer. The Postmaster General of the United States, William F. Bolger, wrote a Shermanesque reply pledging that “the Postal Service be prohibited by law from entering the Generation III’ (terminal-to-terminal) business. That aspect is the proper domain of the telecommunications industry. Our mandate for 206 years has been the delivery of hard-copy messages. That will remain our function.”

So the war ended shortly after the first battle began. But with a different turn of events, we might all be logging on to our Postal-Service-controlled e-mail messages. Or perhaps we would not have taken to that new medium at all, kept our Smith Coronas and waited for our friendly postal carrier to knock on the door and announce, “You’ve got mail.”

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