The lost genius of the Post Office

The lost genius of the @USPS Innovator (which once pioneered pneumatics & even missile delivery), now sclerotic


“The first half of the 20th century was a dynamic time for the Post Office. It immensely improved mail receipt and delivery by adopting innovations from the private sector and abroad. Train cars were designed to mesh two separate aspects of mail delivery: mail sorting and delivery. Rather than have mail delivered to a post office in a jumble and then sorted by postal clerks, clerks on rail cars sorted the mail while it was en route. Bags of sorted mail were hung on posts outside train stations and post offices without the train even needing to stop.

The agency even toyed with moving mail by missile. Why schlep over ground when letters could be launched through the air at 600 miles per hour? “Before man reaches the moon,” Postmaster General Arthur A. Summerfield proclaimed in 1959, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or to Australia by guided missiles.”

OVERSHADOWING ALL THE invention, however, was the creeping sclerosis of the Post Office as an institution. As a monopoly, it was insulated from competitive pressures, allowing inefficiency to creep into its operations and management.

Things began to change in the 1960s. Postal workers unionized, and President John F. Kennedy authorized them to bargain collectively in 1962. Despite growing mail volume, the Post Office ran perennial deficits, and its investment in the guts of the system—mail receipt and sortation—lagged. The system broke down in Chicago in 1966, and 10 million pieces of mail were backlogged for days.”

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