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Speed Mail

purple 4c Stamp commemorating the Echo 1 Satellite, issued December 15, 1960
Stamp commemorating the Echo 1 Satellite, issued December 15, 1960

Speed mail letter, in the special form, sent by Postmaster General Summerfield to Vice President Richard Nixon
Speed mail letter, in the special form, sent by Postmaster General Summerfield to Vice President Richard Nixon (from Washington to Washington through Chicago).

In 1960 postal officials used a satellite to help send a message. The experiment was named “speed mail” and utilized transmissions of messages by microwave that bounced off the Echo 1 satellite on November 9. The Echo satellite had been launched on August 12, 1960. It was essentially a large metalized balloon that would reflect microwave signals from Earth, allowing transmissions that bounced off the satellite from sender to receiver.

Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield was devoted to experimenting with new technologies for moving or processing mail whenever possible. The previous year he used a missile to deliver mail and was now ready to explore the possibilities of using space to speed mail delivery.  He contacted the Natal Research Laboratory and NASA, which had worked to launch the Echo satellite. Both groups had completed successful communication tests and Summerfield asked that the Post Office Department be allowed to experiment with satellite-assisted mail.

Prior to the speed mail tests, the Department had experimented with earth-bound transmissions that would produce what would today be called a fax. Mail was transmitted by co-axial cables, microwave radio relay systems, and telephone wires between Washington, DC, Chicago, Illinois and Battle Creek, Michigan.¹ Among the items sent in the tests were letters, maps, blueprints, charts, and photographs. These successes led Summerfield to look to space as the next step in mail transmission.

Final format of a letter from Postmaster General Summerfield to the American public regarding speed mail
Final format of a letter from Postmaster General Summerfield to the American public regarding speed mail. This letter was bounced off the Echo I satellite to a receiver at Bell Telephone Labs in Holmdel, NJ, and forwarded from there to a receiver in Newark, NJ.

In a press release, Summerfield called this next step “another major landmark in the development of our American Postal System.”2 He laid out four basic steps for prospective senders to use in the new speed mail system:

1. The sender types, writes, draws or otherwise imprints his message on a POD form (somewhat similar to the “V-Mail” forms of World War II).

2. The sender folds and seals the letter (this is the last time contents are seen by human eyes until it reaches the addressee) and then mails it.

3. At the local post office, it is sent to the Speed Mail Unit. One machine places a code mark on the letter which guides it through the “brain” of the system—a complex electronic switching equipment—which directs it to the correct destination printing machine.

4. Moving on to other machines, the sealed edges are trimmed off; the letter is “read” and transmitted over a micro-wave system to the destination post office; there it is reprinted in its original form, automatically folded, sealed and sent out to the addressee.3

The Post Office Department estimated that the sending and receiving units would be able to handle 15 letters per hour. Letters would be able to be sent and received simultaneously. Department engineers recommended that a network of speed mail stations be set up in 71 post offices across the U.S. The Department estimated that ¾ of the users of speed mail would be the general public, and ¼ would be national defense agencies.

Blank Speed Mail form
Blank Speed Mail form

On November 9, 1960, the speed mail experiments went off without a hitch. Messages were sent, bounced off of the Echo 1 satellite, and received as planned. But it would take more than a successful series of tests before Americans could start “beaming” their letters out. The most important step – Congressional approval – had not begun and time was running out for Summerfield and his plans. In January 1961, newly inaugurated President Kennedy named J. Edward Day as his postmaster general. Unlike Summerfield, Day was not enamored of new technologies at any cost. No efforts were made to return to the speed mail project.

endnotes

1) The test took place at a postal substation in the Federal Center Building which also housed the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.

2) “Press Release,” U.S. Post Office Department, November 1, 1960, release #330

3) Ibid.

Written by Nancy A. Pope
November, 2010