"Innovation" and the "United States Postal Service" are not words that we would normally find in the same sentence, but next time you go to the airport, you might say a silent thanks to the postal service for their work in the early 20th century. They--before the military or the department of commerce--saw the potential in air travel and pushed for progress.
Shortly after Wilbur and Orville Wright's first successful flight in 1903, the brothers approached the "war department" for additional support; in return, the Wrights promised to share what they were learning. In 1908, the U.S. owned only one plane that was not in very good condition, and they did not warm to the Wrights' suggestion.
The postal service had always been interested in the latest in transportation methods as they looked for improved ways to move the mail. Whether it was building better roadways, developing canal systems, or subsidizing a network of railroads, the post office was accustomed to pushing forward, and they saw the possibilities offered by flight and were eager to embrace it.
Making their interest official, in 1911 Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock swore in as a mail carrier pilot Earle Ovington. Ovington flew a mail run daily from Garden City to Mineola, New York. At Mineola, mail bags were tossed out of the plane at a set location where the postmaster knew to pick them up. The first trips were considered very experimental, and so only postcards and souvenir-type mail was carried by this "unsafe method of transportation." One fellow in Los Angeles had already written to the Postmaster General that "he does not want any of his mail transported by aeroplane." (New York Times, 10-12-1911)
In 1911-12 the postal service set up 52 experimental flights and began lobbying Congress for money to fund airmail service. Finally money was allotted, and in 1918 the first regularly scheduled postal air service was instituted between New York and Washington with the planes stopping in Philadelphia for servicing. At the start, the postal service used Army pilots and military planes but after only three months, they invested in their own planes, hiring civilian pilots and mechanics. These were the very early days of flying; pilots had no radios or navigational aids, and they flew by dead reckoning. Bad weather meant forced landings.
By 1920 the postal service had crafted a transcontinental route that was a combination of air and railroad---planes did not yet fly at night so the mail was transferred to rail for night travel, and then shifted back to an airplane when daylight broke again. Within just a year, the post office was under pressure to speed up delivery time, and they began experimenting with night flights.
In 1921 the post office was able to prove that night flights--and reduced time on delivering the mail--was possible; workers throughout the central plains built bonfires to guide the pilots who were flying the mail from San Francisco to New York. Coast-to-coast delivery had taken 78 hours when the mail traveled by air only in the daytime; transit time was reduced to 35 hours when the mail remained airborne. This beat the fastest transcontinental trains by at least three days.
In 1925, the country was beginning to understand the potential of air travel, and Congress passed a law to permit the Postmaster General to contract to outsiders for mail service, a move that was intended to stimulate commercial aviation. By the end of 1926, more and more private contractors were taking on the postal air routes. The post office began transferring the facilities they had developed for the service--airways, landing fields, radio service, landing beacons--to the Department of Commerce. By September of 1927, all mail was carried by non-governmental planes.
These early mail flights, in turn, paved the way for passenger service. It was not uncommon for young men to hang out near the fields where they knew a mail plane would be landing. When the plane touched down, they would ask to hook a ride to the next place by sitting atop a mailbag in the back of the open cockpit.
Not every type of postal delivery innovation turned to gold. In 1959, the postal service pronounced that mail could be delivered around the world more quickly by using guided missiles. Firing rockets loaded with mail was started in the 1930s by missile enthusiasts who were looking for practical uses for their devices. The first successful rocket flight in the U.S. was made in 1935 and contained a "a live cock, a hen, and 189 messages."
On June 8, 1959, a Navy submarine fired a missile to reach the Naval Auxiliary Station in Mayport, Florida; the missile was carrying 3,000 letters, and the prediction was that soon mail would be delivered "within hours" from New York to California or as far away as India.
While "missile mail" never took hold, another postal innovation did--and one that most of us still enjoy a great deal--the advent of mail order, which began when the postal service instituted "parcel post."
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