MR. ZIP…AND HOW HE CAME TO BE
By POSTMASTER GENERAL J. EDWARD DAY
What is ZIP… How will it work … and How does it fit into the Post Office Department’s plan for more efficient mail delivery in the years to come
FOR CENTURIES, supposedly, philosophers have pondered the profound puzzle. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Humorist Sam Butler perhaps answered that puzzler best when he said, “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” “Quite clearly, the dilemma of the chicken and its origin has a remarkable parallel in the recurrent dilemma of postal mechanization which for some years has been the source of confusion between the Post office Department and its customers in the mailing industry.
We faced this hardly postal perennial when we took office a bit over two years ago and came to certain conclusions: First, that the egg would indeed come first—that mechanization could not be imposed willy-nilly on an existing system which was entirely manual in concept and development. Second, that sporadic attempts to do so at intervals for 40 years had been notably lacking in success.
It seemed obvious to us that before intelligent mechanization could be programmed for our post officers and financed through the Congress, the system, which it was intended to improve, needed some overhauling.
We could not afford, like some outside commentators, to fall into the trap of the comforting assumption that mechanization per se would perform miracles without altering the system which was to be miraculously reformed.
Mr. ZIP is both the symbol ad the signal for the latest and biggest step of this transformation which began in July of 1961.
As any engineer will tell you, some degree of standardization of product input – whether the product be buggy bumpers of mail – must be presumed before a machine is designed for any task. The same engineer would immediately want to establish a minimum volume level before designing any piece of machinery which could be expected to mechanize any manual task economically.
Both product standardization and volume cost criteria were conspicuously missing from the 40-year history of postal mechanization. Supplying these preliminary essentials was our priority task.
Began With NIMS
The hatching of Mr. ZIP and the universal mailing code which he represents began with the NIMS program in July of 1961. That first step in applying a degree of cooperative standardization to the mail stream by leveling the peaks and valleys of the receipt of mail in post offices was followed six months later by the first modest steps toward physical standardization of the mail with the establishment of a minimum envelop size and the elimination of odd sizes and shapes of envelopes.
In the meantime, the first objective look at the overall mechanization picture of the Post Office Department was being taken by the Presidentially appointed Advisory Board, whose primary recommendations with Department authority boiled down to two items: (1) that the development of functional economic criteria (what will a machine cost vs. savings over manual operation) for existing machinery should be accelerated and (2) the development of coding should be given priority.
The first recommendation, of course, was obviously one of our primary conclusions from our first exposure to the problem and the second was quite in line with our overall concept of the overriding need for some degree of standardization.
Parallel with this study, we were in the process of evaluating a variety of coding programs which had been examined and experimented with over years.
Before any code could be considered applicable to American mail with obviously enormous advantages, a truly universal and flexible code would have to be devised. The pros and cons of each approach had to be carefully weighed.
For example, a promising magnetic code lost some of its promise at that time when the American Banking Association adopted a nationwide magnetic coding program for all checks. There would have been little advantage to either the banks or the Postal System if we jointly confused both their magnetic readers and ours with clashing codes on envelopes and on the checks within.
Other promising coding programs would involve substantial investment in machinery to apply as well as read the code at the post office level. To effect a major impact on our huge mail volume such encoding machinery would be necessary in several hundreds of our post offices.
Other coding approaches were less than satisfactory because they became highly sophisticated and complex putting considerable demands upon the individual postal clerk or the mailer’s staff.