History of Post Office Technology

Postal Mechanization & Early Automation in the Post Office

Gehring Mail Distributing Machine test in Washington, DC, Post Office 1922
Gehring Mail Distributing Machine test in Washington, DC, Post Office 1922. USPO

At the turn of the 20th century, the Post Office Department relied entirely on antiquated mailhandling operations, such as the "pigeonhole" method of letter sorting, a holdover from colonial times. Although crude sorting machines were proposed by inventors of canceling machines in the early 1900s and tested in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II postponed widespread development of post office mechanization until the mid-1950s. The Post Office Department then took major steps toward mechanization by initiating projects and awarding contracts for the development of a number of machines and technologies, including letter sorters, facer-cancelers, automatic address readers, parcel sorters, advanced tray conveyors, flat sorters, and letter mail coding and stamp-tagging technology.

Post Office Sorting Machines

Post Office Cancelers

Post Office Optical Character Reader

Mechanization increased productivity. By the mid-1970s, however, it was clear that cheaper, more efficient methods and equipment were needed if the Postal Service was to offset rising costs associated with growing mail volume. To reduce the number of mail piece handlings, the Postal Service began to develop an expanded ZIP Code in 1978.

The new code required new equipment. The Post Office entered the age of automation in September 1982 when the first computer-driven single-line optical character reader was installed in Los Angeles. The equipment required a letter to be read only once at the originating office by an OCR, which printed a barcode on the envelope. At the destinating office, a less expensive barcode sorter (BCS) sorted the mail by reading its barcode.

Following the introduction of the ZIP+4 code in 1983, the first delivery phase of the new OCR channel sorters and BCSs was completed by mid-1984.

Today, a new generation of equipment is changing the way mail flows and improving productivity. Multiline optical character readers (MLOCRs) read the entire address on an envelope, spray a barcode on the envelope, then sort it at the rate of more than nine per second. Wide area barcode readers can read a barcode virtually anywhere on a letter. Advanced facer-canceler systems face, cancel, and sort mail. The remote barcoding system (RBCS) provides barcoding for handwritten script mail or mail that cannot be read by OCRs.

Walk-It

Until now, most of the emphasis in automation has been processing machine-imprinted mail. Still, letter mail with addresses that were handwritten or not machine-readable had to be processed manually or by a letter sorting machine. The RBCS now allows most of this mail to receive delivery point barcodes without being removed from the automated mailstream. When MLOCRs cannot read an address, they spray an identifying code on the back of the envelope. Operators at a data entry site, which may be far from the mail processing facility, read the address on a video screen and key a code that allows a computer to determine the ZIP Code information. The results are transmitted back to a modified barcode sorter, which pulls the 11-digit ZIP Code information for that item, and sprays the correct barcode on the front of the envelope. The mail then can be sorted within the automated mailstream.

Handling Paper Flow

Competition and Change

Competition grew for every postal product. The rise of fax machines, electronic communications, and other technologies offered alternatives for conveying bills, statements, and personal messages. Entrepreneurs and publishing companies set up alternate delivery networks in an attempt to hold down the costs of delivering magazines and newspapers. Many third-class mailers, finding their mailing budgets reduced and their postage rates increased higher than expected, began shifting some of their expenditures to other forms of advertising, including cable television and telemarketing. Private companies continued to dominate the market for the urgent delivery of mail and packages.