Post Haste

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Largely because of the controversial Republican postmaster general Walter Brown, the U.S. government now adopted a policy of favoring a few large air-mail carriers and subsidizing them handsomely in order to create a stable base for the industry. In April 1930 Brown engineered passage of the McNary-Watres Act, which eliminated competitive bidding and subsidized air mail to such an extent that it not only made passenger transport financially viable but paved the way for the extremely rapid improvement of commercial aircraft. By the end of 1930 almost half a million Americans were flying the airlines yearly, and letters were being delivered across the United States for five cents apiece in as little as twentyeight hours. By 1932 the basic transcontinental routes of four of America’s most important airlines—United, American, Eastern, and TWA —had been mapped out.

Scandal intervened, however, as the public learned the extent of Brown’s manipulation and the airline subsidies. Before the dust settled, all domestic air-mail contracts were canceled, and in early 1934 the Army Air Corps began a disastrous experiment with delivering the mail that resulted in sixty-six forced landings and a dozen fatalities. Within four months the air mail weis reprivatized.

Brown’s policies may not have been fair, but they worked. Not only were commercial carriers more efficient, but his subsidies brought forth a revolutionary generation of new aircraft. Its arrival was dramatized the day before the Army misadventure began, when, as a protest, TWA’s Jack Frye and the air ace Eddie Rickenbacker flew the last of the commercial mail in the brand-new prototype Douglas DC-I from Los Angeles to Newark in a record thirteen hours and four minutes. One New York newspaper wrote at the time, “This plane has made obsolete all other air transport equipment in this country or any other.” These were prophetic words, and the plane’s production version, the DC-2, was destined to become the first modern airliner. By August 1934 it was operating transcontinentally.

With this date used as a benchmark, it is possible to reconstruct an appropriate flight plan by which we might transport a document from New York to San Francisco in the shortest reasonable time. The DC-2 was capable of cruising at 190 mph over a range of 1,000 miles. The first 800-mile leg to Chicago would have taken under five hours. The next stopping point would have been Omaha, after around three hours. After a halt for fuel and a change of crew, the flight would resume with an 800-mile run to Salt Lake City, taking roughly five hours. The last three-and-a-half-hour hop to San Francisco would deliver a document in the scheduled eighteen hours, including layovers.

Today a modern jetliner can travel the same distance nonstop in six hours, and this capability has become the cornerstone of the modern express-mail business. In 1971 Fred Smith, as a graduate student in business school, came up with the idea of creating an airline designed to deliver mail. “We’re a freight service with 550-mile-per-hour delivery trucks,” the president of Federal Express likes to say. Basically the system works by the simplest possible device: routing every package to and from anywhere to a huge five-hundred-thousand-square-foot “super hub” sorting facility in Memphis, Tennessee, and then reshipping from there. This enables the company to keep close track of every item and to guarantee overnight delivery without the need for a complex system of interconnected routes.

For packages the Federal Express system remains state-of-the-art —along with other express companies offering very similar services—but for written material that’s now slow. Today with facsimile transmission— or fax —which became widespread in this decade, it takes virtually no time at all to send a document from sea to shining sea.

Ironically, fax has been with us all along, at least potentially. As far back as 1842 Alexander Bain, a Scottish philosopher and inventor, grasped the principle of transmitting an image over wire. And less than two decades later the completion of the transcontinental telegraph provided the wire. But the two remained unmarried for more than sixty years, held apart by intractable problems of image quality and cost. While many different facsimile designs have been put forth over the years, almost all were founded on the concept of scanning a document one segment at a time and then representing the appropriate shade or tone with a specific amount of electricity. The resulting current sequence could then be transmitted by a variety of electronic technologies.

Facsimile transmission became a reality in 1925, when AT&T successfully introduced a commercial process for sending news photographs by wire. A year later RCA began transmitting images internationally by radio. The equipment upon which these technologies depended remained highly specialized, cumbersome, and very expensive. Moreover, facsimile reproduction remained relatively slow, requiring five to seven minutes to transmit a single image. Meanwhile, the most convenient potential transmission medium, telephone lines, remained subject to imagedistorting interference and therefore was seldom used. For approximately three decades this situation did not fundamentally change.