Post Office Dept. Research and Development, 1945-1970

Strategies to Modernize

Refer to caption
Postal officials examine a Farrington Automatic Address Reader, an early attempt to mechanize the mail sorting process.

Strategies to Modernize
The Post Office Department’s creation of the Office of Research and Engineering was necessary to propel the POD into the modern age. Looking for assistance and inspiration, the Department sought to combine the knowledge of foreign countries’ post office departments and private companies within and outside of the United States to try to overcome the increasing mail volume problems.

Office of Research and Engineering
One of the reasons, and perhaps the main reason, that the Post Office Department was so slow to modernize was that until 1950 there had been no department for research and development. The Department continued to rely on tried and true techniques for sorting and delivering the mail rather than developing new ideas on how to process and deliver the mail.

In 1945 Postmaster General Frank C. Walker noted that there was “a virtual absence in the Post Office Department of organized fundamental research work with a well-equipped laboratory looking to the future.”(1) There were scattered research going on within the Department’s various bureaus, but none of it coordinated.

In 1950, in a reorganization of the Post Office Department, a research and development program was put into action. By 1952 the program had begun to drive modernization programs within the Department. Advancements were made in spite of the tiny amounts of funding the program received. In 1952 only $250,000 was given by Congress for “original or exploratory research and development work” and $500,000 “for improved devices and systems.”(2) Even those scant funds were procured only when officials argued that funds would eventually be saved in the long run by cuts in manpower thanks to modernization.

But until January of 1953, there was still “no real program of research and development in the Post Office Department and none was contemplated.”(3)  The Office of Research and Engineering (ORE), established in 1953, was created to develop machinery and technology that could be used by the Department to modernize postal processing and operations. ORE’s functions were to “a. [develop] and[ administer] research and engineering program, for the Postal Establishment, b. [develop], [design], and [test] postal equipment and materials and [prepare] specifications for their use, c. [develop] methods programs for postal operations and [recommend] improved operating systems and procedures, d.[develop] production measurement standards and manpower utilization systems and [coordinate] their administration, e. [recommend] sites and [develop] functional design, operational layouts, and space utilization schemes for new facilities, f. [formulate] and [provide] architectural and engineering policies and services for the planning and construction of all facilities, including site utilization, structures, and process machinery, g. [develop] functional designs, operational layouts, and space utilization schemes for major repairs, alterations, or extension to Government-owned buildings occupied by the Post Office Department, [and] h. [formulate] and [provide] architectural and engineering policies and services for the modification, modernization, and mechanization of existing facilities.”(4)

The POD made several moves to institute R&D within the Department in the 1950s. But as of 1954, still had only one engineer thus needed to seek outside help for technical issues.(5) In 1956 the Post Office Department came to an agreement with the Bureau of Standards for the Bureau to help study current mail processing techniques. Postmaster General Summerfield was quoted as saying that this operations analysis was “designed… to determine the best systems attainable at this time for sorting and processing of mail, and the scope of possible mechanization of these operations. The analysis is also to aid in planning long-range research and development work.”(6) A next step in exploring and instituting new operations was the 1959 creation of a postal laboratory in the Washington, D.C. Post Office to evaluate experimental machines.(7)  The Department also asked for private industry’s cooperation in a “Challenge to Industry” booklet that stated what the Department had and what it needed in the immediate future and in the long run.(8)

More funding was made in personnel, increasing the number of engineers working in the department through the mid 1950s. These new hires were knowledgeable in mechanization and modernization operations and equipment.(9)  The Department had concluded that “the only solution [for handling the increase of mail volume] is greater mechanization.”(10)  A new Mechanizing Coordinating Division was created to provide “participation in the planning, development, selection, and approval of mechanized equipment used in the Postal Service.”(11) Once the Office of Research and Engineering began moving, it moved relatively quickly. In 1953 the ORE had given out $242,000 in contracts. In 1957 that funding had increased to $2,512,000. By 1960 the Office gave out $15,883,000 in research and engineering contracts.(12)

Among the biggest internal changes made to facilitate the drive to better and faster mail processing was the transfer of the Construction Engineering Division from the Bureau of Facilities to ORE. The move ensured that buildings and machines could be studied simultaneously, and different types of engineers could give their inputs on several ideas.(13) It was a major step in the Department’s recognition that the anticipated new pieces of machinery would have a major impact on construction design.

While the increase in R&D funding in the mid and late 1950s was comparatively large for the POD, those expenditures were dwarfed by spending in other parts of the government and private industry on research and development. In 1952 only 0.0015 percent of the Post Office Department’s budget was spent on R&D, compared with 3.32 spent on R&D from total government expenditures. In 1957 these figures were .0965 and 6.31, respectively. While the Department’s expenditures on research and development in general tended to increase each year, they remained far behind the government’s total R&D expenditures. The former’s in 1962 was 0.7060, versus the government’s percentage 11.80 of total expenditures.(14)

While the Office of Research and Engineering was not getting the budget that it really needed, it was able to develop machines that helped to handle the increasing mail flow without getting bogged down in mail. The small advances were not enough, as the Department discovered in 1966 when the Chicago Post Office essentially shut down after became backlogged with mail. The Chicago backlog spilled into other cities’ post offices, causing a nation-wide mail disruption and bringing the problem of mail processing to national attention.

International Cooperation
The Post Office Department looked beyond U.S. boarders for ideas. Postal officials traveled to various countries to see how they were handling their mail. Some of the countries that postal officials visited included Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

The POD was especially interested in the electronic sorting devices being developed in other countries. Postal officials visited Belgium and the Netherlands to see their electronic sorters, but found that the machines might be challenged by the vastly larger mail loads in the United States as they did in their home countries.(15) The Post Office Department became especially interested in the Canadian postal system, creating a connection to share developments. Friendships between countries’ postal organizations continued, with “exchanging technical information through international exchange programs, studies of technical literature, and visits between the United States, Canada, and Europe by postal engineers and other professional postal representatives of the various countries.”(16)

At first, the United States was one of the more developed countries lagging most in postal modernization. This changed in the span of a few years because of the pressure that the United States was under to find solutions to their increasing mail volume and deficit problems. In a trip to European post offices in 1959, a postal official noted that there were no European breakthroughs and that “US technology is not lagging” anymore behind the European post offices.(17)  It was noted that the English seemed to be the most advanced and that they were looking into a way of coding stamps by phosphorescent marking, which the POD later put into use. Two years later, it was reported in The Washington Post, Times Herald that “One British official [contended] that the American service [had] gone wild in spectacular automation.”(18)

By the 1960s, the U.S. Post Office Department was boasting that it had caught up to other countries’ modernization programs. In 1962 the POD told its advisory board that “American mechanized letter sorting equipment, in place or on order, has a greater capacity than similar machinery in all the rest of the world combined.”(19) However, this may have been an overstatement. In a Survey Report on European Postal Technology published in February of 1968, it was revealed that “despite the apparent lack of generous financial support in all five countries visited, the postal laboratory facilities, either in government installation or in industry (in Belgium), are further advanced and superior in overall capacity to ours.”(20

Unfortunately for the United States, the POD was unable to utilize much of the progress that the Europeans were making because the mail load of the United States required faster machines with more reliability than the ones the Europeans were using. Even though European nations’ processing rate was slower than what the United States desired, they “exceeded the United States in developing coupling or means of interfacing mail processing machines to eliminate handling between machines.”(21) Ultimately, the 1968 survey recommended that the Bureau of Research and Engineering maintain ties between various countries in hope that all would benefit from the flow of information and technology. The U.S. POD also entertained visitors from other countries’ postal services, providing them with tours of the Washington, D.C. post office, a “national showcase.”(22)

Private Corporations’ Help
Along with seeking help from foreign postal agencies, the Post Office Department turned to private companies across the world to see if anything could be gained through cooperation. The POD, because of its limited research and development budget, had often relied on contracts with private corporations.

The start of the modernization program was seen by the POD to “[open] many opportunities to private industry” to work with the Post Office Department.(23) The Department pushed such collaborations as being not only beneficial to the Department, because of the special equipment that would have to be made, but also beneficial to private companies because the lessons learned in creating machines for the POD would be helpful in creating other kinds of machines or mechanical processes. An example of business between the POD and an international company was the Transorma machine, manufactured by a Dutch company. The machine was for letter sorting and was first installed in the United States in 1957. When American companies produced faster and better sorting machines, the Transormas were replaced.

The POD also asked educational institutions for help. In 1966, the Department noted that it was the “first time in history that the Post Office Department [had] turned to the nation’s educational institutions in such a scale for assistance in solving problems.”(24) The Department worked with Dartmouth College for engineering issues, Michigan State University for transportation issues, and Southern Methodist University for management help.

In 1962 and 1967 the Post Office Department issued a “Challenge to Industry” from the Bureau of Research and Engineering to interested corporations. The Department wrote that “Engineers, scientists, and development organizations are invited to join us in this challenge as research contractors and as manufacturers of proven equipment that will fill the needs of the Post Office Department.”(25) The booklet listed current Department equipment and programs, as well as Departmental needs, both immediately and in the long run.

1) Post Office Department Press Releases 1945, Press Release “The annual report of former Postmaster General Frank C. Walker was released today” (For Sunday Release), (Post Office Department, 1945), 6.

2) Jesse M. Donaldson, Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1952 (Post Office Department, 1952), 15.

3) Arthur E. Summerfield. Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1956 (Post Office Department, 1956), 1.

4) 8 Years of Postal Engineering – Office of Research and Engineering (Post Office Department, 1961), 22.

5) “Computer Oral History Collection, 1969-1973, 1977,  Interviewee: Jacob Rabinow (1910-1999), Interviewers: Richard R. Mertz, Date: November 23, 1970,” Repository: Archives Center, National Museum of American History,” 59.

6) Post Office Department Press Releases Jan-June 1956, Press Release No. 20, “Untitled” (for release Thursday, January 26, 1956), (Post Office Department, 1956), 1.

7) Husain M. Mustafa, The Mechanization and Automation of the United States Post Office (Center for Technology and Administration, American University, c. 1964), 23

8) J. Edward Day. Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1962 (Post Office department, 1962), xii.

9) Robert Heller, “Mail Plays Dynamic Part in U.S.” The Washington Post and Times Herald, January 21, 1957, C4.

10) “New Post Office Branch Speeds Up Mechanization,” Ottawa Citizen,March 16, 1959, 7.

11) Bureau of Operations 8 Years of Modernized Postal Operations 1953-1961 (Post Office Department, 1961), 30.

12) 8 Years of Postal Engineering – Office of Research and Engineering (Post Office Department, 1961), 22.

13) Arthur E. Summerfield, Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1959 (Post Office Department, 1959, 13.

14) Husain M. Mustafa, The Mechanization and Automation of the United States Post Office (Center for Technology and Administration, American University, c. 1964), 25.

15) Arthur E. Summerfield. Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1954 (Post Office Department, 1954), 12.

16) Arthur E. Summerfield. Annual Report of the Postmaster General 1958 (Post Office Department, 1958), 28.

17) “NSB Trip of January 9 to July 3, 1959 to European Post Offices” from Mr. Plummer to Mr. McKibbin, June 3, 1960, 1.

18) Robert H. Esterbrook, “How British Mail Sets an Example” The Washington Post, Times Herald, December 30, 1962, E6.

19) Post Office Department Press Releases (General) 1962, General Release No. 95 August 2, 1962 (Post Office Department, 1962), 1.

20) European Postal Technology Survey Report, February 1968 (Post Office Department, 1968), 2.

21) Ibid, 103-104.

22) “The World’s Most Mechanized Post Office: The Story of the Modernization of the Washington, D.C. Post Office: How It Works and Why It Will Improve Mail Service Everywhere,” (Post Office Department, 1959).

23) U.S. Industry and the Post Office Modernization Program (U.S. Department of Commerce, Business and Defense Services Administration, Post Office Department, 1959), 2.

24) Post Office Department Press Releases (General) Jan-June 1966, General Release No. 16, Tuesday January 18, 1966 (Post Office Department, 1966), 1.

25) The Post Office Challenge to Industry, Bureau of Research and Engineering Post Office Department, POD Publication 48 (Post Office Department, 1967), iii