Creative Disruption: The Changing Landscape of Technology

From Snail-Mail to Email

The United States Postal Service was so crucial to the functioning and development of the United States that it was a department of the federal government for most of its first 200 years of operation. But the use and importance of physical mail in a day and age when most messages can be sent electronically has drastically changed the communication landscape, providing a testament to the disruption that technological advances can impose. Here we take a look at the history of the postal service in the United States and how the emergence of technology has impacted this pivotal institution.

An Essential American Service Emerges

The official history of the postal service in the United States actually predates the Declaration of Independence with the appointment of Benjamin Franklin by the Second Continental Congress as Postmaster General in 1775. This appointment carried on a tradition of government-involved mail service.

The first Postmaster General appointed under the Constitution, Samuel Osgood, was appointed in 1789. Postmaster became a Cabinet-level position in 1792. From that date forward, there has been constant expansion of the role of the post office in the quest to provide mail service to all citizens of the United States.

1847 brought stamps to the service, and prepayment of postage was made mandatory in 1855. The service at that time required senders and recipients to send and pick up mail at their local post offices (something many of us still do). In 1863, free delivery began in large cities. At the same time, uniform postage rates based on the size and type of mail were put into use.

In the same time period, 1860-1861, the Post Office instituted the Pony Express, a fast mail service that carried mail across the Western United States by horseback. Although the Pony Express became surplus when the transcontinental telegraph and railroad systems came into use, their institution showed the federal government's commitment to timely mail delivery throughout the United States. The use of the rail system began in 1862 on an experimental basis and became universal with railroad station post offices in 1864. Airmail was introduced in 1918.

Postmaster John Wanamaker pushed for the extension of free delivery into rural areas and, prior to his leaving office in 1893, funds were allocated for such an experiment. The post office had the right to reject any delivery route that it considered improperly paved, too narrow, or otherwise unsafe. It is estimated that between 1897 and 1908, local governments spent an estimated $72 million on bridges, culverts and other improvements to provide for Rural Free Delivery (RFD) service. RFD became permanent and nationwide in 1902. It is still considered by many to be the most important governmental action in bringing together the rural and urban portions of the United States until the introduction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

In 1970, the Postal Reorganization Act was signed by President Nixon, resulting in the spin-off of the Cabinet-level post office department into the independent United States Postal Service (USPS). The act, which took effect on July 1, 1971, stipulated that the "USPS is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality."

From Glory Days to the New Normal

In 2011, the USPS and its 574,000 employees was the second-largest civilian employer in the U.S.(behind Walmart) and, with more than 218,000 vehicles, operates the largest vehicle fleet in the world. But times have changed, and the organization is coming under extreme pressure to reduce costs and operate as a profitable enterprise.

What are the reasons for the decline of the postal service, in economic viability, in volume of mail processed and in the public's appreciation of its role? There are a number of factors. For one, it carries a heavy financial requirement imposed by Congress as part of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA). This was enacted on December 20, 2006, and it obligates the USPS to pre-fund 75-years' worth of future health care benefit payments to retirees within a 10-year time span. In an age when most pensions are being reduced or eliminated, it's a heavy burden to bear.

Another economic factor has been the upward movement of the price of gas. With the largest vehicle fleet in the world, every penny increase in the national average price of gasoline, means an additional $8 million per year to fuel its fleet.

In addition, citizens' view of the role of the USPS is changing. In a January 2012 column for Jewish World Review, conservative economist Thomas Sowell wrote:

"If people who decide to live in remote areas don't pay the costs that their decision imposes on the Postal Service, electric utilities and others, why should other people be forced to pay those costs?".

As the country becomes increasingly urbanized, providing expensive services to those "off the grid" is becoming more controversial. And while this view is certainly not without merit, it's a far cry from the government mandate that the USPS serve all Americans, regardless of geography.

Take the Snail Out of Mail

The prime reason, however, is the technological changes that have occurred. It all began with the advent of the fax machine, but it's the widespread availability of email that's really shifted our focus away from the mail. First-class mail volume peaked in 2001 with a volume of 103,656 million pieces ,and has declined 29% from 1998 to 2008. (Learn the history behind the emergence of email in A Timeline of the Development of the Internet and the World Wide Web.)

The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the precursor of today’s Internet, came online in 1969 as a way of exchanging information between scientists. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson was credited for both deciding that the "@" sign would separate specific recipients from the place at which the recipient’s electronic mailbox was maintained and for sending the first email.

Although there came to be a number of formats developed as email systems developed for internal corporate systems and other networks, Tomlinson’s standards were adopted throughout the ARPANET. As other networks and services were folded into the greater Internet, those standards became universal.

Soon features were added to email to allow the inclusion of graphics and complete files as attachments. Further, as email proliferated in the business world and the security of mail became a real concern, add-ons such as digital signature and encryption came into existence. Web mail services that used secure servers (https), such as Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and Gmail were also introduced.

It is estimated by the Radicati Group, a computer and telecommunications market research firm, that 294 billion email messages were sent per day in 2010, up from 247 billion in 2009. That adds up to 2.8 million emails every second, and some 90 trillion emails per year.

Obviously, not every one of these emails replaces a first-class letter. In fact, Radicati also estimated that 90 percent of those 90 trillion emails were spam or included malware. Nevertheless, that still leaves 9 trillion emails per year, well over the 78,203 million pieces of "snail mail" that passed through the USPS in the same year. (Learn about some of the most common types of malware in Malicious Software: Worms, Trojans and Bots, Oh My!)

Return to Sender?

The demise in public image of the USPS has been compounded further by the fact that as revenue from volume has decreased, it raised the price of stamps to try to maintain its revenue levels. This is the opposite of what generally happens in business, where prices tend to decrease along with demand, and services are cut. Because the USPS is hindered by regulation and labor contracts, it faces an uphill battle to become a profitable enterprise.

But there's little doubt that there will be service changes and cuts, personnel layoff-offs and facility closures. After growing to meet the needs of the United States, the Postal Service now represents a bygone era, one in which the instant gratification for digital communication was not yet an option. And while the mail has hardly been rendered obsolete, its decline is a reminder of the disruption attendant to technological innovation and the ramifications of change.

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Written by John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on Amazon.com.