The global postal system is a wonder of modern logistics and engineering. The fact that you can ship a physical object to anyone anywhere in the world in under a day is a testament to how far we've come.
In the early days of postal services, mail was transported on foot or horseback. It would take days to weeks to months to transport mail any significant distance. This was even impressive at the time, but the people running the postal services across the world knew that the speed of transport had to be improved. For people in the early 1800s, the natural progression of making mail delivery faster than horseback was to strap it to a rocket.
The idea of the mail rocket
The first idea of modern rocket mail was presented by a German Poet, Heinrich yon Kleist, in a newspaper in 1810. Rockets were pretty basic back in this age and would have consisted of gunpowder and a rudimentary casing, like artillery. Kleist anecdotally calculated that the rocket could transport a letter a distance of 180 miles in half a day, or 1/10th the amount of time that it might take its fastest counterpart, a horse.
While this theory likely seemed outlandish at the time, it was just crazy enough that it might work. British inventor Sir William Congreve decided to put it to the test. He strapped mail to his Congreve Rockets, some of the most advanced of the day, and successfully delivered mail to Tonga. However, they tended to be unreliable, so the idea was quickly scrapped... for the time being.
The idea of rocket mail laid untouched until in 1927, Hermann Julius Oberth, founding rocket scientist, decided to try again.
His idea was to create small self-guided rockets that could carry mail 600 to 1200 miles away. This was the first modern representation of the idea, and it caught the mind of a talented Austrian engineer, Friedrich Schmiedl.
Getting mail to rural civilizations
Schmiedl knew the difficulty rural civilizations had transporting mail over mountain ranges. He had tried balloons, but after unsuccessful attempts, he launched his first rocket mail in 1931. The rocket delivered 102 letters to a village 5 kilometers away. He attempted the task again and successfully delivered 333 letters. At last, the rocket mail concept had proven reliable and plausible.
That doesn't mean it worked every time, though. The idea spread across the world, and a German businessman set up his own demonstration for the British government. He launched a rocket with 4,800 pieces of mail to Scotland from the British coast. It launched, but then it exploded and caused burning and scorched letters to rain down on the beach. After this, the government deported him back to Germany, where he was then arrested for espionage with Britain.
Rocket mail continued to expand across the world with limited success for the next two decades until, in 1959, the US Postal Department teamed up with the department of defense for the ultimate test. They managed to secure a Regulus prime cruise missile with a nuclear warhead on the tip. Notably not wanting to nuke the receiving post office, they replaced that warhead with two mail containers. The entire missile weighed 13,000 pounds and held 3,000 letters. They successfully launched the missile from the U.S.
Sending the first U.S. rocket mail
Navy submarine USS Barbero which then struck Naval Base Mayport in Florida 700 miles away, 22 minutes later. The letters were successfully retrieved and subsequently circulated as directed. The letters were all the same for this test and were spread around as commemorative gifts to postal workers and even President Eisenhower.
On the letter it said:
“The great progress being made in guided missilery will be utilized in every practical way in the delivery of the United States mail. You can be certain that the Post Office Department will continue to cooperate with the Defense Department to achieve this objective.”
After the successful test, an overzealous postmaster said that man will deliver mail from New York to California in hours before man reaches the moon. There was one big issue with that statement, though.
The cost of 1 Regulus missile was $1 million at the time. That means each letter cost $333 to send across the country. As for how much the post office made from the sale of stamps for said delivery? It made $240.
That means that every letter lost the U.S. government $332.92. While to most modern government officials, that probably sounds like a bargain, it meant that cross-country rocket mail was not to be. Airplanes were already delivering mail across the world overnight at a fraction of the cost, making expensive government-subsidized rockets an impractical idea.
This was the last practical attempt at sending rocket mail across the world, and it means that now, our mail gets delivered by boring old trucks and planes – not nuclear ballistic missiles. What a shame.