April 1961 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Electronic mail did not start out as we know it today, whereby
anyone with access to an Internet-connected device can compose
and send a typed message to a similarly equipped receiver. The
first electronic mail message was sent (and received) on November
1, 1960, between post offices in Washington, D.C., and Chicago,
Illinois. This article from Popular Electronics takes you on
a step-by-step tour of how the Speed Mail system worked, including
its dedicated shortwave radio links between participating cities.
Great care was taken in an attempt to assure message confidentiality
by having the letter opened and scanned automatically inside
a sealed machine on the transmit end and then printed and placed
in a sealed envelope on the receive end. Knowing what we know
now about government snooping, you have to wonder if a copy
of each message was routed to the NSA (formed in 1952).
The thumbnail image here shows the very first Speed Mail
envelope sent on November 1, 1960:
Dear Mr. Schroeder:
These greetings--by Speed Mail--mark another mile post in
our mutual effort to bring new and swift postal service to the
people of the United States.
Transmitted in seconds, communications such as these will
give additional meaning to the program of next day delivery
of mail anywhere in the United States.
To our friends in Chicago, we express the thanks of all of
us in Washington for the unstinting aid and support which has
been given us. And our friends of the press corps in Washington
send their greetings to the press in Chicago.
Arthur E. Summerfield
Here is a brief accounting of
electronic mail services (and
Electronic Speed Mail
By Ken Gilmore
Speeding trains and transcontinental jets fade into oblivion
as the U. S. Post Office turns to electronics to meet the challenge
of the space age
Last November 1, the Postmaster General gave the signal that
put into operation one of the most revolutionary systems in
the history of the Post Office Department. At the signal, a
letter was inserted in a machine in Washington, D. C. Three
seconds later, another letter, identical to the one in Washington,
popped out of a machine in Chicago.
Hundreds of other letters - all official government mail
- followed at the rate of one every four seconds for each pair
of sending and receiving machines. Since there were four such
pairs operating in each direction, letters flowed at the rate
of one every second between the two cities. The long-awaited
age of "Speed Mail" - the Post Office Department's name for
this brand-new service - had begun.
Actually, the November operation was only a test. Although
some 40 government agencies transmitted large amounts of official
mail to check the system's capabilities, you can't
send letters by Speed Mail - yet. And you probably won't be
able to for two or three years. But the experiments last fall
did prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the system is entirely
If present plans work out, "Speed Mail Centers" will be established
in the country's 71 largest cities. Such a system would mean
same-day or next-day delivery anywhere in the country. The limiting
factor, of course, will be the time required to handle the mail
at each end-pickup and delivery to the local post office at
the sending end, local delivery at the receiving end. The actual
transmission to the next state - or across the country - will
take only a few seconds.
Let's see - step-by-step - just how Speed Mail will work.
Say you live in Washington, D.C., and want to send a letter
to a friend in Chicago. Within a few hours, your letter will
go through 12 operations and be in your friend's hands.
1 You'll write the letter on a special form, similar to the
one used for "V-Mail" during World War II. Since part of the
form will be trimmed away during the automatic handling process,
you'll have to write only within the form's heavy black lines.
2 You put the letter in a mail box, or take it to the post office.
There, instead of being dropped in a bag bound for Chicago,
it is sent through a "coder" which stamps the date on it. The
machine also marks the letter's destination - Chicago - on the
outside of the envelope in a code that an electronic device
will be able to read later in the process.
3 A trimming machine slits the sides and opens your letter;
if you wrote only within the lines provided, no part of your
message is cut away. To insure secrecy of the mails, letters
are opened inside the machine so that no one can see their contents.
4 Your letter and between 450 and 500 others are stacked
in a cartridge within the trimming machine. The cartridge, like
every other letter-handling device in the process, is specially
designed to provide secrecy.
5 The locked cartridge is slipped into place in a "reading"
machine. An operator then pushes a button and several different
operations begin. First, the cartridge is opened and the letters
automatically removed, one at a time. Suction cups grasp each
letter, pull it out flat, and move it under an automatic scanner.
As each letter slides into place, it trips a photoelectric
cell circuit, which starts the scanning process. A facsimile
beam sweeps across your letter, very much like the beam which
sweeps across the screen in your television set and creates
6 The signal from the scanner is routed to the transmitter
and mixed with the control signals. (As in television, a complete
signal is formed which not only contains the modulation signal,
but also the scan synchronization, start and stop printing signals,
and so on.) The photo-electric cell has signaled a receiving
machine in Chicago that your letter is on its way, and a facsimile
scanner in Chicago has started to sweep in exact synchronization
with the one in the transmitting machine.
Simultaneously, your original letter, already copied, is
stacked in another locked cartridge, which cannot be opened
except in the machine. When the operators are sure that the
transmission has been successful, the stored letter is destroyed.
7 The mixed, composite signal is routed through microwave
links and coaxial cables to its destination.
8 At the receiving point, the electronic & signal representing
your letter is sent to a special xerographic printer.
9 Here's how it works.
You'll remember that as the beam swept across your letter
in the "reading" machine in Washington, it generated synchronizing
pulses, one for each sweep. Those pulses kick off a beam in
the receiver in Chicago, which sweeps across the face of a cathode-ray
tube in exact synchronization with the reading beam. A scanning
synchronization signal generated at the transmitter makes sure
that the luminous spot at the receiver starts its sweep at exactly
the same time as the one at the transmitter, so that each new
"picture" starts at the same time.
Now let's visualize these sweeping beams in slow motion.
As the scanning beam in Washington makes its first sweep across
the paper, it "sees" a combination of light and dark spaces
formed by the pattern of your writing on the page. At each dark
spot, the Washington transmitter sends out a signal.
Simultaneously, the beam in Chicago is sweeping across a
selenium drum at the same rate. Since selenium is a photo-sensitive
material, an electrostatic charge can be stored on its surface
in the dark. Wherever light hits the surface, the charge will
leak off; parts not struck by light remain charged.
Every time the beam sweeps across the selenium drum, it puts
out a series of light flashes. And each time the scanning beam
in Washington hits a dark spot - your writing - the beam in
the printer in Chicago flashes and the selenium drum "charge"
at that point leaks off. Thus, as the scanner in Washington
moves down the page (it sweeps across the page 120 times for
each inch of paper) and the drum rotates under its scanning
beam at the same rate, a pattern of charges is built up on the
drum, corresponding exactly to your writing on the original
Of course, you can't see this pattern of electrical charges.
To make it visible, the drum is sprayed with a dark powder which
is electrically charged so that it will stick only to the parts
of the drum which correspond to the dark lines on your original
The drum rotates, and this powdered portion is brought in
contact with a piece of paper which is also charged to attract
the dark powder. The paper pulls the powder from the drum, and
the words and letters of your original message appear in black
powder on the paper. The paper is then "baked" in order to fuse
the powder with the paper.
10 As the completed letter comes from the oven, a signal
from the transmitter in Washington trips a knife, which cuts
the letter to size. It then passes through a series of rollers,
is folded, and sealed.
11 For additional security, the folded and sealed letter
is now automatically put into an envelope with two special windows
- one for the address, the other for the return address. The
envelope is also sealed.
12 Your "Speed Mail" letter is delivered to your friend
through regular mail channels, only a few short hours after
you wrote it.
Posted November 4, 2013