He had to be kidding.
That was my reaction to Paul Vogel's off-handed remark about the U.S. Postal Service's use of military missiles to deliver mail.
The remark came toward the end of my interview with Vogel, who is the subject of this month's Thought Leader Q&A. The topic at hand was the USPS's long history of being the first to try out new, revolutionary methods of transportation. "There are a couple of leaders in the international logistics industry that are helping promote change. I believe the U.S. Postal Service is one of them," said Vogel. "That's been the case for the past 200 years. We were there with the pony express, we were there flying the first airplanes, we even tried missile delivery for a while."
I figured he was pulling my leg. Mail by missile was just too wacky to contemplate. But then again, this was coming from one of the highest-ranking executives within the U.S. Postal Service. He wouldn't just make up something like that.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I started to do a little digging. In 2008, of course, "digging" usually begins with "Googling." A few keystrokes, and there it was. Mail delivery by missile. It even has a formal name: "Rocket Mail."
So here's the deal. It's not a joke. The U.S. Postal Service has actually experimented with rocket mail twice. In February 1936, it sent mail via missile across Greenwood Lake, which straddles the New Jersey/New York line. Two missiles, each loaded with mail, were shot from the New Jersey side of the lake and traveled about 300 yards to a landing point in New York.
Little else was available regarding that test, including information on why it wasn't until almost 25 years later that another test was conducted. But a second trial did take place. Just before noon on June 8, 1959, a missile took off from the U.S. Navy submarine USS Barbero, according to an account on the National Postal Museum's Web site. Its Regulus I cruise missile's nuclear warhead had been removed and replaced by two USPS mail containers carrying roughly 3,000 pieces of mail. Just over 20 minutes after its launch from sea off the Virginia coast, the missile and its payload hit the target at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Fla. Government workers opened the missile and transported the cargo to the U.S. Post Office in nearby Jacksonville, where it was introduced into the postal system for delivery.
The mail carried by the missile consisted entirely of letters and packages commemorating the test. Some were addressed to then- President Dwight D. Eisenhower; others to government officials and local postmasters around the country. Every piece was sent by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and carried full postage (four cents for a letter) and a postmark that read "USS Barbero Jun 8 9.30am 1959."
On hand for the missile's landing in Florida, Summerfield is reported to have stated: "This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail, is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation." Apparently unaware of the 1936 test, he reportedly went on to note that the test was "of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world." Summerfield then made the lofty prediction that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.We stand on the threshold of Rocket Mail."
Well, 11 years, one month, and one day later, man reached the moon, but the USPS's missiles remained stuck on the threshold. The reasons for the Postal Service's failure to follow through on its plan are unclear, but one thing's safe to say: If Rocket Mail had indeed become a standard delivery method, the term "incoming mail" would signal the arrival of something far flashier than a little envelope icon on our computer screens.