Newfangled ‘electronic’ Mail, 1976

When I’m looking for something on microfilm of old papers, I find a lot of other interesting stories and ads – sometime much more interesting than what I was searching for in the first place.

Here’s one such item. from the Sunday, June 20, 1976, issue of the News-Tribune. It has nothing to do with Duluth specifically, but I found it amusing to see how much times and technology have changed:

Electronic mail eyed

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The Postal Service is taking the first steps toward establishing an electronic mail system that promises overnight delivery of letters at a price no higher than current rates.

The mail agency has signed a $2.2 million contract with the RCA Corp. to study what alternatives are available to the Postal Service in the area of computerized message systems.

“We know it is technologically feasible to have a national electronic message service. We could do it today,” said Ralph Marcotte, Postal Service project manager for the RCA contract.

“The question we want answered now is whether there is a national market for it,” he said. “The chances are very good that the study will come up with at least one alternative that is economically feasible and that would be accepted by the public.”

Technology exists to use leased lines, facsimile devices, communications satellites and other devices to send messages electronically.

One possible application is for the Postal Service to establish “electronic mail kiosks” at such places as shopping centers. A person could enter a message written in block letters into a machine equipped with optical character readers that could convert the message into digital form.

The message then could be transmitted to a Postal Service receiving unit near the addressee. A computer printout of the message could be delivered with the next day’s mail.

Another possibility is for a business to link its own computer electronically with that of the nearest Postal Service message station. “His computer would talk to our computer and then ours would send the message electronically, Marcotte said.

The message could be received by computer by the addressee or a printout could be delivered conventionally.

“The cost of sending a onepage business document would be as low as a nickel per page, not including any delivery costs,” he said.

Marcotte said the chances appear good for delivering an electronic letter for the same or less than the current 13-cent price of a first-class letter.

One potential problem with electronic mail is that private companies now entering the field of electronic message systems may complain about competition from the government.

Marcotte said systems run by private enterprise ”would tend to go along routes of high profitability and high usage” while the Postal Service would try to serve all areas of the country.

Officials point out that the Postal Service already has a nationwide delivery network, an asset that companies do not have.

An electronic system would enable the Postal Service to save considerable mail handling. The Postal Service now employs about 700,000 workers, nearly 1 per cent of the American labor force, in moving the mail.

Postal officials say another possible advantage to the agency would be that electronic mail could recover business that the Postal Service has been losing in recent years. Use of the mail has been declining, partly because of rising mail rates and partly because of the increasing use of privately owned electronic communications at the expense of the U.S. mail.

The Postal Service could begin offering an electronic mail service ”as soon as three years from now if everything goes right,” Marcotte said.

”We have the obvious option of growing in steps as demand for the service grows. We could start with leased lines and then later go to satellites, for example,” he said.

Marcotte said a possible ”second generation” is for people to buy a ”black box” to receive mail electronically in his own home. This is not feasible yet, he said.

Marcotte said electronic mail ”would be a supplement to the present first-class mail and eventually might be a substitute.” He concedes that this ”would be a rather radical departure from the present postal system. It certainly would change our image.”

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5 Responses

  1. I thought this was a great quote:

    “The cost of sending a one page business document would be as low as a nickel per page, not including any delivery costs,” he said.

    How much did it cost to photocopy a page back in 1976? Probably about a nickel. So what does that quote even tell people, since it says “not including delivery cost”? Isn’t the delivery cost the thing people would want to know?

  2. Beverly

    One percent of the U.S. work force was employed by the post office? Wow. The story is amusing in its technical detail. I doubt anybody today cares too much about how e-mail works. The story also had me thinking to about 1991 when I was in college and a friend was telling me, “You’ve GOT to get e-mail.” She had signed up for a university account, but I couldn’t see the point. I do NOT have an eye to the future, apparently.

  3. Oh lordy — can you imagine what kind of convoluted system we’d have if the Federal government had taken over, ran and controlled email !? Ironically, in 1976, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other future entrepreneurs were probably in Middle school.

  4. George

    How Profound.
    I think the postal service would be in a lot better place had they grasped the technology at that time. : )

  5. Scott

    It is truly ironic that the USPS wanted to start email when it is now driving them out of business.

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