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The History of Mail: From Traditional to Electronic

As long as there are thoughts, words and information, there will always be a need to share them through communication. Spreading these words from one person to another can prove difficult and inaccurate without some system of delivery in place, such as the mail system. The mail system is in place to transport written words, as well as other objects, to any location around the world. The way that this system works has steadily evolved since its inception and currently includes an electronic mailing system. Electronic mailing has occurred with the advent of the Internet and is called email. This is an extremely popular method of delivering messages instantly, and is achieved with the click of a computer mouse or keyboard.

During the 17th century, mail was delivered by horseback or by foot. At the time, mail moved primarily between the colonies and persons in Britain. Boston was the official site of delivery for mail that came into the colonies from Britain or that was being sent out to Britain. Prior to 1775, the mail system was sporadic and disorganized. There were no post offices and mail could take months before reaching the person it was intended for. From 1753 to 1754 Benjamin Franklin was one of two postmasters for the colonies as assigned by the British. During this time he improved delivery time for the mail by altering how mail wagons traveled and he set up a delivery rate system that was based on weight and the distance of travel. Although he was fired by the British in 1774, Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general when the U.S. Postal system was officially established by the colonies on July 26, 1775.

Stage coaches, known as mail coaches, began transporting mail on roads by the early 19th century while steamboats were used to reach areas where roadways were not available. By 1830 trains became a way of delivering mail, particularly to people living in the eastern United States. As the mail delivery system developed, so did payment for mailing. In 1847, stamps became available with two options: they could be paid for by the sender or by the recipient. In 1855, prepaid mail became mandatory.

Mail delivery to the west was more complicated than delivery to the East due to train robberies and other attacks, and delivery to these areas could take months to reach recipients. As a result, the Pony Express was developed in 1860 and lasted for approximately one and a half years. Roughly ten years later in Paris, the first attempt at airmail was made when 500 pounds of mail was sent airborne using free balloons. The first successful airmail deliveries by plane occurred in 1911 during a week-long demonstrations of airplanes as methods of mail delivery. In 1918, the Air Mail Service for the U.S. Post Office Department was established.

Until modern times, the United States Postal Department was an agency of the federal government. This changed in 1970 with the Postal Reorganization Act. This changed the organization from the U.S. Postal Department to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), and made it an independent government agency. The USPS delivers mail via a fleet of vehicles owned by the postal service and in some cases, mail carriers may use their personal vehicles. Mail is delivered in most places six days a week, not counting Sundays. Mail is also flown by plane to international locations and for premium domestic services, although it is no longer given the separate distinction of being called “Air Mail.”

The transportation of mail has also evolved into the transmission of mail known as email. Email has had a profound effect on the mail system in that it allows for the instant and paperless transmission of communication between people all over the world within a matter of seconds. Email, or electronic mail, is generally defined as messages that are transmitted electronically. This definition, however, is not exclusive to email only. Originally, it applied to methods such as the electrical telegraph and Morse Code. The telegraph was an instrument that was used to send electric signals across wires. Although versions of the telegraph dated to the 18th century, it wasn't until the mid-19th century that the first electrical telegraph was developed by Samuel Morse. In addition, Morse developed a system of sounds that related to the alphabet for communication purposes using the telegraph. This code became known as Morse Code.

When an email is sent through online channels, it is sent to what is called an email server. An email server is an online application that receives and stores incoming emails. Various types of email client software are responsible for sending emails to, and picking them up from, email servers, for users to read. Another adaptation of emails is the instant message. Instant messaging is an informal means of sending a real-time communication between two people and is referred to as a synchronous tool. This differs from email in that people who instant message one another expect a prompt response from the receiver. Emails on the other hand are considered an asynchronous tool in that a response is not expected immediately and both parties are not expected to be available at the same time.

In 1961, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), which featured CTSS Mail, one of the earliest types of online message delivery systems. It featured the ability to attach files and included basic security, such as preventing one user from reading another user's electronic mail. Local area networks (LAN)-based email systems appeared in the 1980s and were designed to deliver messages between computers in a single local network which was usually controlled by a single mainframe computer. On LAN email networks, mail moved from one computer through the mainframe to another computer, but not beyond that network. Future implementations of LAN-based email networks allowed personal computers (PCs) to send messages to others connected through a single router. Modern programs implement LAN-based email to prevent sensitive messages from being routed outside a private network.

Mail and its delivery has been and continues to be ever-changing. Throughout its history delivery methods have evolved from delivery by horse to electronic transmissions. Even today, traditional methods of mail delivery are in a state of change. With emerging technology, new and more convenient methods of communicating and delivering mail will likely emerge and further reshape how mail is sent and received.

For further information about the history of mail and electronic mail, see the following links: