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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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polaroid sx-70 camera, silver with brown leather, open on white surface
Thomas Backa

In one corner stood the defending champion, Texas Instruments. In the other stood the challenger, Fairchild Semiconductor. The referee, judge, promoter, and only spectator was Polaroid. In contention was the contract for the electronics of Polaroid’s secret project—a pioneering product introduced in 1972 as the SX-70, a camera eventually purchased by millions of people.

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