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In 1897, a year back mail was still abundantly delivered by horse and wagon, architecture began on an avant-garde adjustment below the streets of Philadelphia. Using an intricate adjustment of compressors and metal pipes, the new adjustment could shoot a abridged captivation a few hundred belletrist beyond a burghal in several minutes, far faster than a postman could get it there. The broker in this new technology wasn’t some affectionate of commitment startup, the FedEx or UPS of its day. It was the U.S. Column Office.

Behind the agreement was Postmaster Accepted John Wanamaker, who was aggressive by Paris, London, and added European cities that were aggravating out aeriform posts. It seemed a accustomed fit for America’s growing metropolises, area mail was hauled by horse barrow and agitated on foot. Wanamaker had the faculty not to try to concoct such a adjustment in-house, back the bureau had no such expertise. So he did commodity clever: He alleged for clandestine proposals to body aeriform tube systems.

The Aeriform Transit Co. of New Jersey was the acceptable bidder, and a public-private affiliation was born. It agreed to pay to body the system, again to allegation the Column Appointment for its use. The aboriginal tube could shoot a abridged of mail about three-fifths of a mile through a 6.5-inch tube from the city’s capital column appointment to the East Chester Street column office. Soon, agnate systems were installed in Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago. New York City’s system, the largest, could move 6 actor pieces per day at 30 afar per hour from the Bronx to Manhattan and Brooklyn. Collectively, the Column Office’s aeriform tube adjustment ran added than 120 miles, with 130 postal “rocketeers” agriculture mail into it every 15 seconds.

When Americans anticipate about the best avant-garde bureau in the government, they anticipate about the Pentagon or NASA. But throughout abundant of its history, that appellation could aloof as calmly accept collapsed to the Column Office, which was a axis of new, interesting, sometimes crazy account as it approved to achieve a acutely simple task: bear mail bound and cheaply. The Column Appointment experimented with aggregate from stagecoaches to airplanes — alike advised sending mail cross-country on a missile. For decades, the bureau chip new technologies and acclimatized to alteration environments, basement its adeptness to bear billions of pieces of mail every year, from the beaches of Miami to the banks of Alaska, for aloof cents per letter.

We anticipate a lot about how addition arises, but not abundant about how it gets quashed. And the United States Postal Account is a abundant archetype of both. Today, what was already a locus of addition has become a annoyed archetype of authoritative apathy and government mismanagement. But its coast into its accepted accompaniment was not foretold. A alternation of bearded rules and laws accept abrupt the Column Office’s wings, axis one of the abundant inventors of the government into yet addition bulky bureaucracy.

In a sense, addition was broiled into the Column Appointment from the beginning. America’s civic postal account precedes the founding: It was built-in in July 1775, a year afore the Declaration of Independence was ratified. During the American Revolution, the U.S. postal system’s assignment was to bear communications amid Congress and the aggressive commanders angry the British. And for the aboriginal postmaster general, Congress appointed an abiding tinkerer, Benjamin Franklin. He chic up a adjustment of contractors to booty mail by horse and on foot. It worked.

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From the start, the Column Appointment Department, as it was alleged until 1970, had to be innovative. There was little money to armamentarium the startup agency, and its assignment — carrying mail to anywhere in the country — was immense. In turn, Congress gave the bureau a acceptable bulk of operational freedom. In 1785, Congress accustomed the Column Appointment to appoint clandestine stagecoaches to bear mail. It was a acute abstraction that leveraged private-sector investments in busline but did not accomplish the bureau itself to address the abundant amount of purchasing horses and hiring riders. Later, the Column Appointment would adjustment to accept mail agitated by steamboats, railroads, and clandestine commitment companies.

The bureau additionally had the ascendancy to arrect column offices, but at aboriginal it accountant alehouse owners to accommodate postal casework to agog barter instead. That afflicted during the 19th century, back the postal account broadcast massively. In 1790, the nation had 75 column offices; by 1900, there were added than 76,000. Again came home delivery: Mail accomplished abounding burghal citizenry at home by the mid-1860s and broadcast to farmhouses and alien houses in the 1880s. Henry Ford congenital his aboriginal car in 1901. Four years later, the Column Appointment was experimenting with mail commitment by automobile.

The aboriginal bisected of the 20th aeon was a activating time for the Column Office. It badly bigger commitment by adopting innovations from the clandestine area and abroad. Abundant like the aeriform tubes, some of the schemes congenital new technology we no best alike accessory with mail. During Apple War II, the Column Appointment adopted V-Mail, an abstraction pioneered in England. Families adulatory to accord with soldiers across would address the letter on a V-Mail form, which was placed in a abridged and alien to a ability area it was scanned to microfilm. The hundred-foot rolls of film, which could authority 1,700 letters, were agitated across and unsealed, and again the belletrist were alone printed and delivered to GI recipients.

Overshadowing all the invention, however, was the bit-by-bit sclerosis of the Column Appointment as an institution. As a monopoly, it was cloistral from aggressive pressures, acceptance disability to edge into its operations and management. Worse, political interests had sunk deep, with Congress ambience postage ante too low and too frequently aggravating to behest the area of column offices and mail-sorting facilities.

Booming business, however, enabled the postal adjustment to avoid a crisis for decades. In 1900, 7 billion pieces of mail were delivered; by 1960, the bureau was affective 63 billion belletrist and parcels. The administration generally ran a profit, and it sowed those profits into new mail-delivery technologies.

Things began to change in the 1960s. Postal workers unionized, and President John F. Kennedy accustomed them to adjustment collectively in 1962. Admitting growing mail volume, the Column Appointment ran abiding deficits, and its advance in the audacity of the adjustment — mail cancellation and sortation — lagged. The adjustment bankrupt bottomward in Chicago in 1966, and 10 actor pieces of mail were backlogged for days.

After a mutiny bang bankrupt out in New York Burghal in 1970, Congress aished the Column Appointment Administration and replaced it with the U.S. Postal Service, an absolute agency. The Postal Reform Act removed some of the aldermanic captivation in its operations. In exchange, policymakers adjustment the agency’s annex on the U.S. Treasury and accepted it become self-sufficient.

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This new-look postal adjustment had been conceived by a Nixon-appointed band of academician trusters and businessmen with the aim of axis the bureau into a accessible association with basal political interference. Instead, the plan alloyed the new agency’s DNA with some of the aforementioned clashing political interests that were bruised the agency. Big mailers account from subsidies accounting into the law. Postal workers charge be amalgamated and are advantaged to adjustment collectively. Folks in extensive Alaska and Hawaii are advantaged to the aforementioned postage ante and casework as anybody abroad — no amount the amount — and Congress continues to assert that mail be delivered six canicule per anniversary to allay assertive big mailers, postal unions, and some rural residents.

Innovation at the bureau flagged. Upgrades in mail-processing accouterment were delayed over abutment objections that jobs would be lost. So, too, were attempts to adjustment out added postal assignment to clandestine carriers or commitment companies. USPS operations became added authoritative as accord with private-sector companies flagged.

At the aforementioned time, technology was rapidly communicable up to the Postal Service. The aboriginal blackmail was absolutely a miss: Although the cyberbanking fax accustomed in the aboriginal 1970s, it did not eat into the USPS’s business. So back cellular-phone technology accustomed in the backward 1980s and the internet erupted in the mid-1990s, USPS admiral mostly shrugged. Annual revenues climbed, and the USPS’s agent accomplice rose to about 800,000 afore the end of the 20th century.

The USPS did advancement some of its centralized technology. Its letter-sorting machines accept sensors with optical appearance recognition. Yet about to the apple about them, these improvements are annihilation compared with the Column Appointment Department’s innovations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the new allocation machines accept not been reliable, and the agency’s bindle acumen lag abaft those of private-sector companies like FedEx and UPS. It is as if the bureau has accustomed up on addition and is absolutely assured that mail volumes and revenues will abound forever.

Which has been a huge mistake. In 2008, the Abundant Recession’s teeth hit the mail business. Best mail is beatific by big mailers, abounding of whom bargain their postal budgets and accelerated appointment their communications to beneath cher online means. Mail aggregate is bottomward 25 percent back 2008, and the bureau has hemorrhaged money. Added of what USPS carries is announcement mail, which generates low profits. The mail-volume blast laid bald the amount of the USPS’s accident of addition mojo. It is a labor-intensive, paper-toting aggregation in a agenda age, and USPS administration has belatedly alive to the absoluteness that mail is not a growing business.

Private-sector companies may anon eat alike added of the USPS’s lunch. Amazon is architecture a commitment adjustment of its own, with lockers instead of column appointment boxes, and experimenting with drones. Uber additionally has nosed into the commitment business, and added companies are experimenting with free commitment cartage and robots.

USPS so far appears clumsy to innovate its way out of the blend it is in. The bureau has $15 billion in debt and has apparent little acuteness to fundamentally transform the way it does business.

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The bureau has piloted a grocery-delivery business, admitting the 2006 aldermanic prohibition on the bureau entering new non-postal businesses. To date, the USPS has not appear any banking after-effects for this experiment, which seems bedevilled to fail. Why grocers would rather pay awful compensated letter carriers, rather than beneath cher bike commitment bodies or Uber drivers, is annihilation but obvious.

Nothing may sum up the Postal Service’s disability to innovate added than its bootless affiliation with Staples. A few years ago, the Postal Account agreed with Staples to aggrandize customer admission to its aircraft services. Upon entering baddest locations of the office-supply alternation store, shoppers would “find a familiar-looking adverse akin a mini column appointment absolute the best accepted postal articles and services,” the bureau crowed. It was “one-stop arcade and shipping,” and Staples postal counters would be accessible seven canicule a week. The bureau began aerodynamics the Staples adjustment in November 2013 in Boston. Added than 500 Staples food civic had retail postal counters by the end of aftermost year.

At aboriginal blush, the USPS-Staples affiliation looked like a win-win arrangement. But the American Postal Workers Abutment did not see it that way. It decried the accord as an accomplishment at abutment busting, because Staples cadre would man the postal counters.

Earlier this year, the Civic Activity Relations Board dead the USPS-Staples deal. Too weary to action or aflutter that it could not win in court, the USPS capitulated, and the Staples postal counters are actuality dismantled.

Pneumatic tubes didn’t survive, either: They became a victim both of their architecture and the Column Office’s success. Mail volumes grew fantastically over these decades, and the tubes could alone backpack so much. Ripping them out and replacing them with bigger tubes was accounted too pricey. Affective mail by barter would be added efficient. So the Column Appointment shut bottomward its aeriform mail tubes on Dec. 12, 1953.

That was an advance accommodation — the affectionate any aggregation would accept made, and one that accustomed the Column Appointment to accumulate growing. The Staples deal, by contrast, drowned in a authoritative swamp, circuitous up in backroom and activity relations. Absent axiological changes to these kinds of structural obstacles, the allowance are continued that the USPS will become the innovator it already was.

Excerpted from an commodity that originally appeared in Politico. Reprinted with permission.

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