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CONNECTING THE DOTS

What a 19th century post office reform teaches us about urban innovation

a white mail truck with a blue US Postal Service logo and blue and red stripe drives down a city street The background building is blurred to imply motion
REUTERS/Mike Segar
The information highway of yesteryear gave rise to today’s innovations.
By Camille Squires
Published Last updated

At the turn of the 20th century, the postal system was the internet of its time. Mail was the way ideas and information spread across America’s long distances before telephones arrived on the scene.

In the 1800s, the US Postal Service (USPS) was the largest civilian bureaucracy of its time but mired in the incompetence of the “spoils” system, when hiring was made based on patronage and favor. But in 1883, the US Congress passed the Pendelton Act, leading to a number of improvements to US government agencies, including the postal service: faster mail delivery times, fewer errors, and lower costs.  The first wave of reforms came to 23 cities before eventually spreading to more than 500.

More than a century later, this offered an ideal natural experiment for researchers from the University of California, Berkeley to test the way these reforms impacted communication of the day. In a new working paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found the experience of the USPS has lessons for our own time about the nature of innovation, and how to encourage it as we enter a new period of government investment in another essential communication tool—high-speed internet.

By studying USPS reports and personnel records, as well as patent filings, they tracked how the number of patents changed, as well as how people collaborated between cities in places where postal reforms were implemented. The researchers found innovation followed the flow of postal information and news; Cities that had undergone postal reform were about 50% more likely to have filed any joint patents, and among cities where joint patents were filed, having reformed post offices increased the number of joint patents by 25% in the years immediately following reform.

The researchers point out that these empirical results support the existing body of literature showing postal reforms accelerated the innovations of the Gilded Age from the light bulb to the Kodak camera. Such inventions were crucial to the rapid industrialization and economic growth in the US between the 1870s and 1900s.

Today, innovations in technology, businesses, and social institutions are all aided by the connectivity of the internet. Today, the US government may have a similar role to play connecting as many people as through high-speed broadband internet.

How broadband connects cities today

Today, the most important information network in the US is the internet. Even so, 22.5% of Americans live without any home internet connection, and one in eight Americans has no access to high-speed internet.

For people in rural locations, the barriers are structural: internet service providers have not laid enough cables to reach more remote places, much like electricity in the 1930s. But the majority of people without broadband access live in cities. Although physical networking equipment exists, many urban residents are shut out by price or by digital redlining, wherein ISPs refuse to operate in certain areas. Still others lack the equipment and knowledge to operate effectively in a digital-first economy. In New York City, 18% of residents have no internet connection at all.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…”

As with the post office, government reforms are aimed at setting new standards for broadband connection in the US. This time, reforms are happening by providing better tools for end-users, not enacting personnel changes.

The Biden administration is making a $65 billion investment in expanding broadband access as part of the $1 trillion infrastructure law of 2021. The money set aside for broadband access tries to fill the gaps in the existing internet landscape building out new towers and lines in hard-to-reach places, but also by providing states with money to subsidize broadband for those who can’t afford it, and ensuring high-speed internet at community “anchor” locations like libraries.

As high-speed internet becomes a public service as essential as mail, improvements to US information infrastructure can yield tangible, economic benefits.  Better connection means improving digital access and skills among citizen users that offer them better prospects for jobs and health, as well as more opportunities to collaborate and innovate, especially as more work moves entirely online.

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