© 2007 All Rights Reserved. Do not distribute or repurpose this work without written permission from the copyright holder(s).
Printed from https://www.damninteresting.com/one-small-step-for-mail/
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.
© 2007 All Rights Reserved. Do not distribute or repurpose this work without written permission from the copyright holder(s).
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Very interesting, yet impractical. Imagine the costs, and the risk to your package.
Its funny to note that they realized it was too costly to use rockets AFTER they launched it once.
I’m sure they realised before. How anyone could think this would ever be feasible is a mystery. Just an excuse to launch rockets methinks!
Re ‘second!!!’: Who cares? You suck.
Rocket Mail…every time I read that I start giggling. This has to be the funniest article I’ve read on DI, top work =D
I think I will just stick to e-mails….
Zany idea. It might actually be cost-effective when dealing with provisions for the Antarctic, though. I haven’t done any research (I tend not to– lazy, lazy me), but that proposal kind of makes sense to me.
Plus you only have to worry about combustion, unlike these interweb-nets, with their hackers and such. Mistaken address? It doesn’t matter, your message will be destroyed (in addition to the multiple children in the vicinity) upon delivery, ensuring you can keep a clean conscience about ordering that donkey show on dvd.
@Kiwi – I think I will just stick to e-mails…
Me too… and by the way, I think there was a email service called Rocketmail, it has been taken over by Yahoo now!!!
If we ever build a hotel on the moon or Mars,
well rocket mail will be, unless of course they
have ‘beam me up’ transporters by then.
Is it me or is e-mail getting a little old,
shouldn’t it be 3-D by now? Where are the
holograms we were promised, I mean it was
on Star Wars, so when are we gonna get this
Hmmmmmm… what next? Perhaps “Rocket E-mail” Nah… maybe just a little too impractable after all. Great, Damned Interesting article!
Interesting…..! But still seems a very impractical idea to be used on a regular basis…!
What I don’t get is how the mail gets delivered to the rocket launch area. I mean….sure the rocket is fast, but the methods of transportation to get the mail to the launch site are still the same.
Unless of course they were going to give each little city a launch site, I would still have to drop my package in the mailbox…wait for it to be picked up and taken to the nearest sorting facility….wait for it to be sorted….wait for it to be picked up and transported to the rocket launch site….wait for rocket to be launched….wait for rocket to arrive at destination (look at that baby fly!) …then wait for the whole process to begin again in reverse at the new location.
How is that fast? I mean..it’s “faster” but not worth the ridiculous cost. Now…if you could transport humans like that…that’d be worth it….and probably damn fun too!
Boy, think about the billing for “returned to sender address unknown” or “insufficient postage” mail… Still, can’t be as bad as the owl droppings that Potter kid has to endure.
As a current postal worker, I’m glad this isn’t how it works today.
What if you were sitting on your front lawn and the delivery rocket smashed into you at 2200mph…sounds like a great way to get mail to you but I dont think you will be alive long enought to read it
” . . . less successful. in the end . . .”: cap the I.
Oh, and DI.
[Quote]Having failed to impress the British officials with his mail-incinerating rocket[/Quote] I laughed out loud at that one!! Damned Interesting indeed!!
That picture marked “Zucker 1934” is so classic. “Watch as I demonstrate the 9th wonder of the world *BOOM*… uh… thank you for comming?” I really wish I knew what Zucker said in the face of utter failure of that magnitute. I mean really, he didnt just miss or have a dud. He blew it to hell in front of the real people he needed to impress. That’s great stuff heh, DI.
~Rocket Mail! . . . burning out it’s fuse up there alone~
I almost burst into song a few times reading this article . . DI!
Rocket Mail in this country did not end with the “Missile Mail” Regulus. More than one space mission has carried first-day covers, the most infamous being the collection from Apollo 15. Currently, the ISS has a package delivery service via Progress spacecraft and STS.
Ok, so NASA doesn’t run down to the UPS Store to send a box of parts to the ISS, but still…
Current and previous methods for delivering the mail (that actually worked) would also make for good DI articles, probably not as humerous, but mail getting sorted while moving on a train’s fairly interesting, and I would guess the machines they use for sorting now are worth knowing about.
Anyways, kudos on a fine article.
I like that this article is filed under “Your Tax Dollars at Work”
Also, I like the new layout!
i will bet my life that once interstellar colonization begins, the idea of rocket mail will surface again. (i need to stop betting my life on every idea that has even the slightest feasibility).
I’m envisioning angry calls from customers at the women’s catalogue company I work for:
“Victoria Secret uses rocket delivery! Why can’t YOU use rocket delivery?!”
I love the way you write, Christopher.
Is there any truth to the story that the German businessman used his own family members to demonstrate the frequency and reliability of his rockets? His sales slogan: “There’s a Zucker borne every minute!”
It was no accident that the heavily publicized launch also broadcast a bold message about the accuracy of America’s long-range missile systems.
Hmm. Let’s see, could this have been, and maybe I’m just a little naive, but just possibly could this have been the true intent of the experiment?
Is it just me, or is Rocket Golf the best idea… ever?
Tee off from russia with a few surplus rockets, mainland Europe as the fairway, Sahara as a sand trap, Atlantic Ocean as a water obstacle, Greenland as, aptly, the green?
Par 6 for the course, eh old chap?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to mail a letter–oh wait, someday it might!!
In response to the last comment I feel driven to share this very funny joke about golf:
Jesus and Saint Peter are golfing. St. Peter steps up to the tee on a par three and hits one long and straight. It reaches the green. Jesus is up next. He slices it. It heads over the fence into traffic on an adjacent street. Bounces off a truck, onto the roof of a nearby shack and into the rain gutter, down the drain spout and onto a lilly pad at the edge of a lake. A frog jumps up and snatches the ball in his mouth. An eagle swoops down, grabs the frog. As the eagle flies over the green, the frog croaks and drops the ball. It’s in the hole. Saint Peter looks at Jesus, exasperated. “Are you gonna play golf?” he asks “Or are you just gonna fuck around?”
Maybe it’s just me, but this article made me think of the pirate radio station episode of The Goodies, where they start a pirate radio station and post office…
…(cue crickets chirping)…
“Rocket Mail” sound like a Weird Al Yankovich take on an Elton John song. Ha Ha
Once you’ve developed the system then where does the cost lie? It seems like a rocket should be reusable apart from the fuel and the mechanisms in a rocket don’t seem any more complicated than those in a modern lorry.
Perhaps there’s a greater expense in more frequent total losses. Also, the tracking technology would have to be fairly accurate (and therefore probably expensive) to ensure that wind changes/storms wouldn’t make the rocket land several feet off target and possibly into the post office and buildings that surround any landing pad. The receiving post offices might also find it necessary to purchase a larger pocket of land to reduce the chance of such occurences and that would be an expensive proposition in any major centre worth rocketing mail to.
If only Greenland was green. When I was travelling over there it was icey and Iceland was green. Intentional ploy or the mistake of a shipload of mead-headed Vikings?
Damn I wish I was a Viking.
Actually Nicki, when the Vikings first discovered Greenland, it was very different than what we know of it today.
Before 1150 Europe was enjoying a small warm age. Then the weather grew cooler with moderate summers and colder winters. The Vikings settled Greenland and Iceland during these periods. From the evidence both countries were robust with grasses, trees, and animal life. Before the 1300’s there was over 3,000 Vikings living in 300 settlements along the west Greenland coast. By 1560 until 1850 the summers were cold and dreary with the winters experiencing extreme cold.
This promoted increased glaciations along the trade routes changing the normally favorable shipping into a tedious and dangerous affair. The summer harvest was poor, and stock animals as well as wildlife died off. This meant trade with Iceland and European countries became a life or death necessity. The increase of ice in the waters around Greenland meant less ships were traveling there for trade. By the 1300’s many Greenlanders had moved to the more favorable Markland, known today as Newfoundland.
From archeological evidence the Greenland Viking was an average 5’ 7” before 1200, but in the end as the last few settlements died off. The last remaining Greenland Vikings were severely crippled, twisted, unhealthy, dwarflike souls, a poor image to the healthy, proud stock from which they came.
Are you sure you want to be a Greenland Viking during the last part of their civilization?
If I’m granted a Wednesday afternoon daydream I can hardly be choosy about the time period, so . . yep.
Don, please don’t tell me you knew that off the top of your head. That’s just insane.
Could you maybe tell me what a Viking would do if he had a rocket? Probably something really, really cool.
Invade! Someplace, somewhere, somehow. They would Invade!
Haha, anyone heard the saying, going postal? imagine the carnage if the postal service workers had rockets at their disposal…
Illustrator: It’s here, just not on your desk yet…
Maybe a really spectacular Viking funeral?
Thanks for the links and interesting as well.
As off-topic as it can be, but as we already have one pretty nice comment on Viking population in the Greenland, I put here a link to another story detailing the mysteries behind the end of Viking settlements: http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/greenland/
Damn interesting as well.
What can I say, I like history. Most of what I wrote was from memory, but I did have to double-check some figures. No more impressive than someone with sport’s statistics on various players or games. ;)
The Vikings would probably have used a rocket for transport (thinking it was akin to Odin’s thunder chariot). They would have sought out the Frost Giants to discover why the world was being consumed by winter. Even to seek out Valhalla and see if the fallen heroes would help them defeat whatever scourge was behind the death of summer. Or use it as Thor’s hammer to defeat the Frost Giants. After all, Thor’s hammer would shake the earth and crack-open the ground.
Don . . . coooooool.
Rocket Mail will arrive at the same time the US fires up their Missile Defense system making their country impregnable to any missile or rocket.
People will go on vacation to Toronto and try to send post cards back home…only to have them blown out of the sky over Lake Ontario.
I know one thing….if there was rocket mail everywhere….and it wasn’t completely reliable…I’m sure the mail to the US from the Middle East would increase dramatically.
A round of postal rocket Viking golf anyone?
Just imagine… I go to a restaurant with the most fantastic French porkchop drizzled in an exqusite pear and wine sauce. Instead of merely telling my friends about it with rocket mail and a few ice packs I can order an extra to go and send it to my friends instead.
Charlie Trotter and all of the specialty chefs here in Chicago could rocket mail their most delictable specialties to China and all over the world. If this were possible perhaps Chicago could lose its designation as the fattest city in the United States (we beat out Houston last year).
Great! At last a real use for The Strategic Defense Initiative–Junk Mail defense. Now, thats my tax dollars well spent!
Oh, and Damn Interesting article. And fascinating links. Keep up the good work.
That’s okay . . no one likes to hear anything from Toronto anyway
Anywhere in the world in 1 hour…
Imagine the smuggling possibilities!
A scrap of useless information.
In 2006 an online gaming portal got so successful and gained so many members that they started a webmail service. They called it Rocketmail. To publicize it they ran newspaper ads and several video commercials showing the same affable but inefficient postal worker in different settings, strapping himself to a rocket to get around and deliver the mail. The videos were briefly very popular but the company voluntarily withdrew the campaign because the union representing real postal workers complained that it reflected badly on their members! A friend of mine worked for the production company that made the videos. The last one was of the rocketeering mailman, his wings presumably clipped, strumming a guitar and singing a sad farewell.
Perhaps we should take it seriously that there are stories like this, about concepts that had no serious merit, but which were taken so seriously that they turned into projects involving seriously large expenditures, when they should not have been taken seriously at all, and that such projects continue to proliferate at a seriously increasing rate, without many taking the situation at all seriously. That we do not know what we are doing should be taken very seriously. Seriously.