Before Email, We Had Vmail, Mail Sent Through Film

It saved 98 percent on cargo space.
Before Email, We Had Vmail, Mail Sent Through Film

Mail takes up a lot of space. So here's an idea: Before shipping mail out, let's shrink it down. We send it overseas in this vastly more compact form. Then once it reaches its destination, they blow it up again so it's big enough to read.

Okay, that sounds like a ridiculous idea, nowhere worth the effort. But it made sense during one unique period: World War II. The military had to process a lot of mail—the army alone processed 2.5 billion pieces of mail in 1945, which is approximately one piece per overseas person per day. Space was scarce, and every plane filled with letters was a plane that couldn't be filled with bullets and whiskey. 

So the military introduced the Army Micro Photographic Mail Service, popularly known as "Vmail," meaning victory mail. Want to send a letter to your loved one? The military would photograph it for you. They'd store the image as a thumbnail (a word that originally meant a miniature literally the size of the nail on your thumb). By shipping microfilm instead of full sheets of paper, they saved 98 percent on cargo space. 

It wasn't that much added work, making a military official point a camera at each letter individually. The military already had to read each letter in full, to censor all offending material. On the recipient's end, the military developed the film and printed out a copy one-quarter the size of the letter you originally wrote. That was easily big enough to read with the naked eye, assuming you had normal handwriting.

Another mail method at the time used no cargo space at all. During World War II (and even earlier), people were able to send faxes wirelessly from one continent to another. Since Radiofax used regular radio waves, it didn't offer nearly enough bandwidth to send all the millions of images the military would need to transmit every day if they chose to send all its mail this way. But news agencies did use Radiofax. You know the famous photo Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima? The AP sent it to New York by Radiofax, so readers got to see it right after it was taken. 

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For more on the history of mail, check out:

4 Everyday Things That Caused Huge Panics When They Were New

The Postal Service And The IRS Have Contingency Plans For Armageddon

Junk Mail Creates More Greenhouse Gases Than Heating 13 Million Homes

 Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

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