There are few who would call postal delivery exciting. The reasons for this attitude are difficult to pin down, but it seems there is something inherent about the meticulous sorting and distribution of various pieces of paper that fails to capture the imagination. Nevertheless, over the last century there have been those who have wanted to change that: visionaries who looked beyond the truck and mailbag and imagined a means of delivering credit card bills and erotic magazines that would defy the heavens and shake the very Earth itself. Rarely has history seen a concept so grand, and so impractical, as Rocket Mail.
The promise of rocket mail was an ultra-fast, unmanned mail transport solution that could neatly circumvent obstacles such as forests and bodies of water. The precise method proposed varied among advocates, but the basic concept was simple and universal. A rocket, anywhere from a foot in length to the size of an automobile, would be packed with mail and launched towards a target. Upon reaching its destination, it would be designed to do one of two things: either deploy a parachute and float gently to the delivery site, or, for a much better show, crash and burrow its nose into the ground, ideally with its payload intact. Assuming it could be perfected, rocket mail would be vastly superior to conventional forms of mail transport.
Experimentation with rocket cargo delivery was a favorite pastime for many tinkerers early in the 20th century, and the practice gradually became refined enough to be taken seriously. In 1931, Friedrich Schmiedl started a rocket mail service in Austria after a successful launch of one hundred pieces of mail between two Austrian villages. Enthused by this exciting new method of delivery, other countries scrambled to follow suit.
But as flashy as it was, the inherent problems with rocket mail rapidly became apparent. Perhaps most significant was the unfortunate tendency of the rockets to blow up, an issue which could arise at almost any point during the launch, flight, or landing. A series of highly-publicized failures in the 1930’s served to greatly diminish worldwide interest in rocket mail. One man responsible for more than his share of these was Gerhard Zucker, a German businessman who was determined to bring rocket mail to the world. Something of a showman and a charlatan, Zucker sold tickets to public launches for which he used large, impressive-looking hulls stuffed with small powder rockets. His launches were more circus attractions than serious proposals, but they nonetheless attracted some international attention; in 1934, he was invited to give a demonstration for officials of the British Royal Mail. On July 31 of that year, before a distinguished crowd on a beach in Scotland, Zucker lit the fuse that was certain to define his career. Zucker claimed his rockets could cruise 250 miles at speeds of 2,200 miles per hour—but while the 1200 letters packed into the fuselage that day did indeed travel at a high speed, they did so in many directions at once, and for a rather short distance. Having failed to impress the British officials with his mail-incinerating rocket, Zucker was deported for “mail fraud” back to Germany, where he narrowly escaped commitment to an asylum and was forbidden from further experimenting with rockets.
Assuming a rocket made it off the ground in one piece, it still faced the equally daunting task of accurately finding its target. A typical approach to this problem was taken by Indian Postal Service employee Stephen Smith, who from 1934-44 experimented with launching letters aboard six-foot-long souped-up fireworks. Smith’s navigation system, which consisted of pointing the rocket in the general direction of its target, lighting a fuse, and running for cover, was perhaps not up to the demands of a sophisticated postal delivery network. Still, his launches found some measure of success, and soon he had moved up to tests with parcels, food, and live poultry (some of the earliest rocketeers) flown across short distances. Smith died before taking his ideas much further, but in recognition of his achievements the Indian government issued a stamp in his honor in 1992, calling him “the originator of rocket mail in India.” Curiously enough, no modern fleet of mail rockets was available to carry the new postage.
These early rockets were certainly innovative, but in terms of their practical abilities they were little more than toys. To be delivered accurately and reliably over long distances, mail rockets would require a much more advanced hull design and a sophisticated navigation system—in short, they would need to transform into something more like a cruise missile than a conventional rocket.
And so when the US government got involved in the rocket mail fad several decades later, that was exactly what they did: for a 1959 collaborative experiment between the Department of Defense and the US Post Office Department, an SSM-N-8 Regulus cruise missile capable of delivering a two megaton thermonuclear warhead over a range of 600 miles was chosen as the letter carrier. The missile, with its nuclear payload prudently removed beforehand, was loaded with two official mail containers holding 3000 pieces of mail. From a location off the coast of Virginia, the missile was launched by the USS Barbaro, a Navy submarine. It touched down twenty-two minutes later at a Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida, where its intact cargo (commemorative postal covers addressed to various government officials) was recovered and sorted at a nearby post office.
This success was met with great excitement. While naysayers quibbled over such details as the wisdom of launching intercontinental cruise missiles to deliver postcards during the height of the Cold War, others were already mapping out a bright future for rocket mail. “Before man reaches the moon,” predicted U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, “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.”
It was no accident that the heavily publicized launch also broadcast a bold message about the accuracy of America’s long-range missile systems. But as far as the officially stated purpose of the demonstration was concerned, the launch was less successful. In the end, the Regulus missile experiment only served to underscore the problems with rocket mail. Using cruise missiles neatly solved most of the issues with navigation and reliability, but at a cost that was somewhat difficult to justify—computers of the day were primitive, but our modern calculators have shown that the four-cent postage utilized for the test likely did not cover the cost of the million-dollar missile and its launch. While the contents of the mail rocket went on to become popular collector’s items, the 1959 experiment was the last stop for official rocket mail in the United States.
In the years since then, enthusiasm for rocket-powered mail has cooled considerably. Most recently, the arrival of email and the internet seemed to sound the last death knell for this overpowered mode of delivery. And yet, while the practicalities of rocket mail as it was originally envisioned are dubious, the promises it made for delivery speed and versatility were undeniably intriguing and have yet to be achieved by any other method.
So perhaps it is not surprising that rocket mail still has its advocates. Rockets have been proposed as a means of delivering essential supplies to remote areas such as Antarctica, for instance. Meanwhile, Russia, looking for a use for its surplus missiles, has continued to experiment with rocket mail delivery since the end of the Cold War. While still not very practical, presumably this is a more productive use for the missiles than alternatives such as big game hunting or rocket golf. And rocket mail may yet see its day as a full-blown regular delivery service, even faster and more extravagant than imagined by its early proponents.
If a fully reusable, single-stage-to-orbit vehicle is ever developed, it will open the door to package delivery via orbital rocket. Such a system would still be very expensive, but might be justified as an ultra-elite business courier service—one that could promise delivery anywhere in the world in under an hour. Some private aerospace companies are already looking into this possibility.
For most of its bumpy history, rocket mail was never much more than a glamorous publicity stunt. But as we move into the future, this old idea may at last become more than an object of veiled ridicule by snarky web journalists and achieve its true potential: parcel delivery at a speed worthy of the information age.