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From the Annals of Overkill: The Electric Mailbox

In 1885, Ephraim E. Weaver jumped a little too hard onto the electrification bandwagon

5 min read
Photo: National Postal Museum/Smithsonian Institution
Photo: National Postal Museum/Smithsonian Institution

During the 1870s and ’80s, inventors filed more than a dozen patent applications in the United States for electrical improvements to letter boxes. But why did mailboxes and letter slots, surely among the simplest mechanical devices, have to be electrified? It was primarily a matter of convenience, for people who wanted to know exactly when the mail had arrived and didn’t want to waste time checking.

Free home delivery of the mail had begun in the United States in 1863, but mailboxes were not yet standard. Instead, a postman would knock on the door (perhaps with a handheld wooden knocker), wait for someone to answer, and then hand over the mail. If no one was home, the carrier returned later or the next day. Although this created great trust in the system, it wasn’t very efficient. In 1909, postal officials calculated that on a typical day, carriers made 360 stops and spent an average of 15 seconds per delivery, or an hour and a half a day, simply waiting.

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How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented

Three decades of UI research came together in the mice, windows, and icons used today

18 min read
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Stylized drawing of a desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, on the screen are windows, Icons, and menus
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum
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Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.

But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.

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