Last week I wrote about visiting the Postal Museum of the Smithsonian. For obvious reasons the exhibit on the anthrax attack grabbed my attention, a reminder of how specific events can shape how decision-makers see the world.
But focusing on this one exhibit is hardly fair to this fascinating museum.
It has the world's largest collection of stamps, harking back to the days when exotic stamps were items of wonder and mystery. They were also a significant organizational advance for governments, verifying payment of taxes and fees.
Stamps are neat, but the functioning of bureaucracies is what grabbed my attention. Now, the Post Office is generally seen as a relatively minor, and frankly dull (and earnest) government function. But, pre-electronic communications, organizing consistent large-scale communications to support commerce and the exchange of knowledge. I've also been interested in how large organizations function and the power of making them do so. It is incredible to think that the European powers, in the pre-electric era, with limited technology, managed to establish worldwide empires. Their technological advantages, while present, were insufficient. But their organizational abilities were essential.
Benjamin Franklin was a great American - a writer, inventor, and businessman and world-renowned scientist. His international fame helped make the American Revolution in France possible. He was a rock star in France, Monsieur Electricite. This status gave him access to elite Paris society in order to dun them for support for the Colonies. But he was also a postmaster. Establishing an orderly mail service through the colonies played an essential role in establishing an American identity (there was some self-interest involved since it allowed Franklin to better disseminate his writings and acquire information from around the Eastern seaboard and beyond.)
As the colonies moved towards independence, they established a postal system before anything else. Representatives needed to communicate and couldn't rely on the British system which they knew was monitored. In effect, the United States had a post office before it had an army, government, or anything else.
Side note, the British postal system had always been monitored. People knew if they wrote against the king, for example, it might very well be read and the writer would find themselves in big trouble. In contrast, the United States never really accepted a domestic intelligence agency. The FBI does the job in a pinch, but they'd prefer to catch criminals.
Now we live in the age of big data, instantaneous global communication, and innumerable complex bureaucracies. Yet for its time, the Post Office was a marvel of communication and a major technological innovator that made enormous contributions to the American economy.
It is fascinating to consider the postal system as a sort of rudimentary nervous system for a great nation, binding its vast spaced together. Ultimately it was superseded by telephones and now the Internet. It is easy to dismiss it as primitive compared to our present-day wonders. But just as scientists study and people wonder at less complex organisms like jellyfish, we can marvel at all the postal system achieved given the technology available and learn from it.