When you think of the US Postal Service, the word “innovative” probably doesn’t come to mind. But they weren’t always this way. The USPS almost created Gmail before Google.
In the early-80s, the USPS developed one of the earliest iterations of email for public use.
It was called Electronic Computer Originated Mail, or E-COM for short. The postal service’s largest customers, among them banks and insurance companies, already prepared most of their bills and account statements on computers. Rather than trucking mountains of printouts to nearby post offices, these large users would be able to transmit messages—either electronically or on reels of computer tape—to the USPS’s Sperry Rand Univac 1108 computer system in Middletown, Va. From there, the postal service would send the messages in the blink of an eye to post offices around the country, where clerks would print them out, seal them in envelopes, and pass them on to letter carriers who would deliver them to people’s homes. – Bloomberg
It cost 15 cents to send an E-COM, which was the cost of a typical First Class postage stamp. So it was essentially an email with a stamp.
E-COM launched in 1982 and quickly signed these customers: Merrill Lynch, Shell Oil, the AFL-CIO, the Equitable Life Assurance Society, Hallmark Cards, and the Moral Majority.
Ultimately, the USPS canceled it in 1985 after only sending 41 million E-COMs.
Part of the problem was that the Postal Rate Commission ultimately prohibited the USPS from making its own electronic network between post offices. Only outside telecom companies could transmit E-COM and the USPS could then deliver the physicals. This raised USPS’s costs significantly.
Right Thinking, Wrong Timing
There are several instances of visionary thinking by the USPS here.
One, they saw the value of using computer networking to cut out some of the transit in sending messages. Granted, they hadn’t considered that every household would soon have a personal computer. Thus, we wouldn’t need to print out emails. But the fact that they were thinking about building their own computer networks in the late-70s and early-80s is fascinating.
Two, after personal computing later became a reality in the 90s, the USPS had the idea of giving all of their customers a personal email address which consisted of their first initials, their nine-digit ZIP code, and the last two numbers of their street address. Yes, these would be clunky and unmemorable emails, but it shows they were thinking about how email addresses would become a major part of our identities on the Internet.
Today, many people’s Gmail is at the core of their Internet identity. It’s used as the login for most websites, it’s the basis of enjoying YouTube, and you can’t really move around the web without an email. The USPS saw this coming, but ultimately failed.
Regardless, it’s fun to imagine what life would be like if USPS successfully created email. They could have actually become a publicly-traded company instead of existing in this gray area between the public and private sector. They wouldn’t be operating at a massive loss and at risk of being unable to sustain employee pension plans.