Retrotechtacular: Hacking Wartime Mail


I’m guessing you got quite a few e-mails today. But have you ever had a v-mail? That sounds like some new term for video e-mail, but it actually dates back to World War II. If you are in Europe, the term was Airgraph — not much more descriptive.

If you make a study of war, you’ll find one thing. Over the long term, the winning side is almost always the side that can keep their troops supplied. Many historians think World War II was not won by weapons but won by manufacturing capability. That might not be totally true, but supplies are critical to a combat force. Other factors like tactics, doctrine, training, and sheer will come into play as well.

On the other hand, morale on the front line and the home front is important, too. Few things boost morale as much as a positive letter from home. But there’s a problem.

While today’s warfighter might have access to a variety of options to communicate with those back home, in World War II, communications typically meant written letters. The problem is ships going from the United States to Europe needed to be full of materials and soldiers, not mailbags. With almost two million U.S. soldiers in the European Theater of Operations, handling mail from home was a major concern.

British Mail Hack

The British already figured out the mail problem in the 1930s. Eastman Kodak and Imperial Airways (which would later become British Airways) developed the Airgraph system to save weight on mail-carrying aircraft.  Airgraph allowed people to write soldiers on a special form. The form was microfilmed and sent to the field. On the receiving end, the microfilm was printed and delivered as regular mail.

A poster at the time (see left) claimed that 1,600 Airgraph letters required 5 oz compared to 50 lbs of real paper mail. By 1941, the first 70,oo0 Airgraphs were sent to overseas troops. Eventually, soldiers could use the same service to return mail home.

The Airgraphs were cheap (3 pence), but were only 2×3 inches, so they were more or less small postcards. All of this took equipment at both ends but by 1944, Airgraphs were available throughout the European theater and other parts of the Commonwealth.

V-Mail

The US version of Airgraph was V-Mail. A 7×9 inch form went through censors and then went to microfilm. The destination printer would print the output at 60% or just over 4×5 inches.The National Postal Museum claims that 150,00 one-page letters would take 37 mailbags weighing over 2,500 pounds. The same amount of V-Mail fit in a single 45-pound sack.

There was another advantage to Airgraph and V-Mail. Security. Invisible ink, microdots, and microprinting all fail to get past the process of putting the messages on film.

Lessons Learned

With today’s myriad communications methods, V-Mail isn’t making a comeback. But it is a great example of how outside-the-box thinking can accomplish. Reducing mail weight to 1.8% and volume to 2.7% would have sounded like impossible goals, but Kodak did it.

The other thing that interests me is how quickly high-tech (because, in the day this was high-tech) can rise to solve a problem and then become almost completely forgotten. How many kids born this week will know what an LED watch is or a dial up modem? How about a daisy wheel printer or a floppy disk? You have to wonder what other tech is out there almost completely forgotten and that’s where Retrotechtacular comes in.



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