The History of Communication Technology

Postal System

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By Ben Frederick,

Different from many other types of communication that send electronic signals, the mail system involves actual transportation of a message, either a letter from home or a bill from the electric company. This transportation path originating from sender to the recipient has become a sophisticated network of carriers ranging from people, to airplanes, to tractor trailers, to smaller vehicles.

Though the concept of mail, i.e. the conveying of a message by passing it on from one person to another in a written form, likely dates back to the invention of writing itself, an actual mail or postal system was not created till much later. In a time around 2400 BC, pharos employed curriers to deliver written documents throughout Egypt. Each region around the world entered the development stages of mail at different times throughout history. Rome is claimed to have the first well documented postal service which arose under Augustus Caesar around the time of the birth of Christ (Wikipedia, 2007).

In North America, the mail system began in the late 1600s when mail was carried by friends, merchants, and Native Americans. It was in 1673 when Governor Francis Lovelace created a monthly post between New York and Boston. Later, in 1683, William Penn opened Pennsylvania’s first post office. These systems were all very individualized and were not very well constructed, usually relying on some third party to continue the transporting of mail. After the Boston Tea Party, and the beginning of the separation from England, in 1775 a continental congress met and one outcome to this meeting was the appointment of Ben Franklin as the Postmaster General (T. E. Dilley).

The U.S. Mail system was very responsible for the improvement and creation of the transportation system throughout the country. Anytime a new mode of transportation was invented, the US Postal Service would willingly try it out in hopes of finding new ways to decrease travel time for mail. For example, in 1896, the Post Office experimented with the “horseless buggy,” long before many people even were aware of its existence, all in an effort to speed up the mail delivery.

Through the early 19th century, mail service to the west coast was very limited. California was quite disconnected from the rest of the developing country. As the country continued to move toward the west, this cumbersome issue of communication became an increasingly important issue. A perfect example of how limited communication was between the west and east coast is that when California was fully accepted into the Union, they were not aware of for six weeks. Typically, during these times, mail was seldom delivered by land. If by chance a post did make it across the country it was done via movement through the military. In 1848, during the time of the gold rush, the Post Office Department contracted a steam ship company to carry mail by ship to the west coast. Mail was picked up by in New York and steamed to Panama, where it was offloaded and shipped across by train, then reloaded and steamed the rest of the way to California (T. E. Dilley). The total time expected was to be no more than three to four weeks, however, it was very seldom if ever, that this goal was met.

Route used for mail to the west coast

It was in March of 1860 that a pioneer in American transportation, William H Russell placed the following add in newspapers... “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert pony riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." His goal was to find individuals to ride from St. Joseph, Missouri, to California carrying mail. St. Joseph was, at the time, the most western point of the country accessible to mail via the railroad. This 2,000 mile expedition was deemed impossible by many as it was a very unfamiliar stretch of country which was extremely treacherous. Besides the planned stops along the way, each about 10 miles apart, the land was primarily inhabited by Native Americans. The stops along the way were for the most part constructed as a place to house the horses which would be exchanged by riders passing through. Riders had to endure the harshest of circumstances, from bitter cold winter blizzards, to hot arid summer thirsts for water, not to mention the actual 75 to 100 mile stretch each had to endure before he could rest and turn around to head back. Riders were paid around $50 per month to carry about 25 lbs of mail in a leather satchel (mochila) which was paramount in quickly transferring mail between horses (Wikipedia, 2007).

The route of the Pony Express

The implementation of the Pony Express began in April of 1860, and only ran for a short time after. The typical time for a post to reach Sacramento from St. Joseph was 10 days. The fastest time was in 1861 when William Campbell carried Lincoln’s first message to Congress. In November of the same year, the Pony Express delivered its final package. In all, 34,750 pieces of mail were delivered over its short lifespan. Though there are many reasons for the ending of the Pony Express, the primary motive was due to the completion of the transcontinental telegraph. After this time, the Pony Express lived on only as a legend (Gibson, 2003).

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, mail was sent via may methods, including horseback, stage coaches, steam ships, trains, hot air balloons, and finally airplanes. However, none of these methods are nearly as effective as the method which is so commonly used today – e-mail.
The implementation of e-mail has effectively made communicating much more simple and efficient. However, it would be expected that the use of postal mail would in turn decline due to this large growth in communication via e-mail. This assumption is more than just that, it’s a fact. In since 2001, there has been a drop of 7% in use of first class mail (Jesdanun, 2008). This can only be linked to an increased use of e-mail. Though the use of mail has been dropping, it’s also been offset slightly by an increase in bulk mailing of advertising. For the use of e-mail to increase, companies such as AOL must get users, how do they get users? - By sending invitations to subscribe through postal mail.

Looking back over the history of mail, society in general has come a long way from delivering a message by horseback or ship and awaiting the arrival which could take weeks, to the nearly instantaneous sending of birthday card, bills, and correspondence with the click of a mouse.


Gibson, E. (2003, November 18). Suite101. Retrieved April 12, 2008, from The Pony Express:
Jesdanun, A. (2008, February 4). ABC news. Retrieved April 12, 2008, from Surviving the Decline of Snail Mail:
T. E. Dilley, e. a. (n.d.). The History of the United States Postal Service. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from Ask:inventors:
Wikipedia. (2007). Mail. Retrieved April 12, 2008, from Wikipedia: