Since research began in the 1960s, Optical Character Recognition—the ability of machines to read printed words—was seen as an essential first step in truly automating mail processing. With such technology, a significant percentage of the US mail could be sorted and processed without a single human eye reading the address until it was ready for delivery. The unblinking mechanical eye of the OCR oversaw huge swaths of mail processing.
Developed by Lockheed Martin and the USPS and deployed in 2002, the WFOV camera can read many forms of barcodes, machine-printed writing, and even handwriting. By taking four simultaneous images of each mail piece, the WFOV camera achieved remarkable levels of accuracy.
As the sheer volume of mail continued to grow, it began to overwhelm the mechanical innovations of the previous 60 years. In the 1980s, the USPS made strides to keep up with this river of mail in two main ways: by using automated machines that took on more of the work of sorting the mail and by reorganizing the channels through which some mail flowed with new Bulk Mail Centers.
Lots of businesses send out millions of pieces of mail—from magazines to sweepstakes entries—sometimes in a single day. The USPS has worked out a system with businesses like this so they take on some of the work of preparing and sorting the mail, and the USPS gives them a discount on the postage. Take a magazine, for example.
Twenty-one of the new Bulk Mail Centers were built in the 1980s. The Postal Service hoped to keep up with the rising tide of commercial mass mailings by crisscrossing the nation with a network of specialized centers, and by implementing pricing policies that encouraged mailers to carry some of the burden of sorting and transporting the mail.
From Nintendo Company Headquarters to Norman, Oklahoma
Judy Franklin’s aunt and uncle buy her a subscription to the new Nintendo Power Magazine for her 11th birthday. They mail in the subscription request, and the magazine’s distributor is notified to add the Franklin residence in Norman, OK, to the list of recipients.
The company that mails Nintendo Power prints postage and an address label for each copy, and sorts the magazines to the first three digits of their ZIP Codes before stacking them on a pallet. These pallets are then shipped to the nearest Bulk Mail Center.
At the Bulk Mail Center, the pallet is spot-checked to make sure that the mailer has been accurate about the number of magazines shipped, weight, etc. The magazines are then sorted there, and shipped out to different postal facilities across the country. Judy’s magazine goes to the Norman, OK Processing and Distribution Center, where the magazine is sorted into the rest of the mail stream and sorted down to the appropriate local post office.