The Penny Post revolutionary who transformed how we send letters

Rowland Hill
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Rowland Hill was a former schoolmaster, whose only experience of the Post Office in the 1830s was as a disgruntled user.

Nobody had asked him to come up with detailed proposals for completely revamping it. He did the research in his spare time, wrote up his analysis, and sent it off privately to the chancellor of the exchequer, naively confident that “a right understanding of my plan must secure its adoption” .

He felt his outsider status was a positive benefit. “In few departments,” he wrote, “have important reforms been effected by those trained up in practical familiarity with their details.

“The men to detect blemishes and defects are among those who have not, by long familiarity, been made insensible to them.”

But Hill was soon to get a lesson in human nature. People whose careers depend on a system, no matter how inefficient it might be, will not necessarily welcome a total outsider turning up with a meticulously argued diagnosis of its faults and proposals for improvements.

“Utterly fallacious… most preposterous,” blustered the secretary of the Post Office, Colonel Maberly. “Wild… extraordinary,” agreed the Earl of Lichfield, the postmaster-general.

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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world.

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Presentational grey line

Brushed off by the chancellor, Hill changed tack. He printed and distributed his proposals, insisting that his lack of experience meant he was perfectly qualified for the task at hand.

He was not the only person frustrated with the system, and many who read his manifesto – and were not employed by the Post Office – agreed that it made perfect sense.

The Spectator magazine campaigned for Hill’s reforms. There were petitions. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge made representations. Within three years, the government had bowed to public pressure, and appointed a Post Office supremo: Hill himself.

What were the problems Hill identified? Back then, you did not pay to send a letter. You paid to receive one. The pricing formula was complicated and usually prohibitively expensive.

If the postman knocked on your door in the city of Birmingham, with a three-page letter from London, he would let you read it only if you coughed up two shillings and threepence.

That was not far below the average daily wage, even though “the whole missive might not weigh a quarter of an ounce”, just a few grams.

People found workarounds.

Members of Parliament could send letters free of charge, so if you happened to know one, they might “frank” your letters as a favour. The free-franking privilege was widely abused. By the 1830s, MPs were apparently penning an improbable seven million letters a year.

Another common trick was to send coded messages through small variations in the address.

You and I might agree that if you sent me an envelope addressed “Tim Harford”, that would signify you were well, but that if you addressed it “Mr T Harford”, I would understand you needed help. When the postman knocked, I would inspect the envelope, and refuse to pay.

Hill’s solution was a bold two-step reform.

Senders, not recipients, would be asked to pay for postage; and it would be cheap – one penny, regardless of distance, for letters of up to half an ounce, 14g.

Hill thought it would be worth running the post at a loss, to stimulate what he called “the productive power of the country”.

The first Penny Post dispatch arrives at Waterloo Station in the 19th Century
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
A Penny Post dispatch arrives at Waterloo Station

But he made the case that profits would actually go up, because if letters were cheaper to send, people would send more of them.

A few years ago the Indian-born economist CK Prahalad argued that there was a fortune to be made by catering to what he called “the bottom of the pyramid”, the poor and lower-middle class of the developing world.

They did not have a lot of money as individuals, but they had a lot of money when you put them all together.

Hill was more than 150 years ahead of him.

He pointed to a case when small payments from large numbers of poor people had mounted up for the government: “duties on malt and ardent spirits – which, beyond all doubt, are principally consumed by the poorer classes” brought in much more than those on “wine, the beverage of the wealthy”.

The first Penny Black stamp proof sheet, featuring Queen Victoria in profile
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
The first Penny Black stamp proof sheet, featuring Queen Victoria in profile

Hill concluded, slightly disparagingly: “The wish to correspond with their friends may not be so strong… as the desire for fermented liquors, but facts have come to my knowledge tending to show that, but for the high rate of postage, many a letter would be written, and many a heart gladdened too, where the revenue and the feelings of friends now suffer alike.”

He was right. In 1840, the first year of Penny Post, the number of letters sent more than doubled. Within 10 years, it had doubled again.

It took only three years for postage stamps to be introduced in Switzerland and Brazil, a little longer in America, and by 1860, they were in 90 countries. Hill had shown that the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid was there to be mined.

Image copyrightALAMY
The Swiss “Basel Dove” stamp printed in 1845 was the world’s first three-coloured stamp

Cheap postage brought the world some recognisably modern problems: junk mail, scams, and a growing demand for immediate response. Half a century on from Hill’s Penny Post, deliveries in London were as frequent as hourly, and replies were expected by “return of post”.

But did the Penny Post also diffuse useful knowledge, and stimulate productive power?

A group of economists recently came up with an ingenious test of this idea in the United States. They gathered data on the spread of post offices in the 19th Century, and the number of applications for patents from different parts of the country.

An 1891 woodcut showing prospectors outside the post office in San Francisco during the California gold rush in 1849
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Prospectors outside the post office in San Francisco during the California gold rush in 1849

New post offices did indeed predict more inventiveness, just as Hill would have expected.

Nowadays, what we call “snail mail” looks to be in terminal decline. There are so many other ways to gladden our friends’ hearts.

Meanwhile, the average office worker gets well over 100 emails a day. We no longer need societies to promote the diffusion of useful knowledge – we need better ways to distil it.

But the economists who researched the link between post offices and patents argue the 19th Century postal service does have a lesson to teach us today: namely, that “government policy and institutional design have the power to support technological progress”.

So what current blemishes and defects in these areas might be holding progress back?

45,000 registered rice farmers across 34 local government areas of Katsina would benefit from Federal Government’s anchor borrower agricultural programme under the current farming season in Katsina State

Alhaji Shuaibu Wakili, the State Chairman of the Rice Farrmers Association (RIFAN) made this known in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Daura on Saturday.

He said out of the total number, 15,800 farmers had been formally captured as distribution of the agricultural inputs had commenced last Friday and others to follow soon.

He said the farmers were provided with inputs that included fertilizer, water pumping machines, herbicides, sprayers, improved variety of seedlings and other relevant items to boost their productivity.

He added that the number of cultivable land hecter registered against an individual farmer or group would determine the quantity of the inputs to be received.

“We provide 6 bags of fertilizer per hecter, 30kg of improved seedlings, 1 water pumping machine and seven liters of herbicides, ” he said.

According to him, the association has so far received 700 million naira cash and 3,227 bags of paddy rice as loan repayment for the 2018 dry season farming.

He also revealed that they were intensifying efforts to recover the loans so tbat others could benefit.

He stressed that his office through lawyers had recently started issuing demand notice to defaulting farmers to hasten up or risk formal prosecution in the law.

Wakili lauded the efforts of the Federal Government and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for introducing the programme.

He said within its three years of existence, it had boosted food security, generated millions of employment and turned thousands of farmers into millionaires.

He attributed the success recorded by the programme to the timely supply of agricultural inputs to farmers by the apex bank.

Remember how outlandish the first Samsung Galaxy Note looked when it was unveiled in 2011?

It was huge – a smartphone with a 5.3in (13cm) screen and a stylus.

I remember standing on a Barcelona street with an early version, embarrassed to put it to my ear and make a call because I’d look like something out of a Dom Joly sketch.

But it quickly won a sizeable fan base including the kind of people who had owned Psion Organisers or the Nokia Communicator.

They wanted a device that could do almost everything a laptop could do.

Dom Joly with a huge mobile phone
Image copyrightPA IMAGES
Many of Dom Joly’s most famous Trigger Happy TV sketches involved him bellowing into a giant handset

Over the years, many smartphones have acquired those kind of capabilities and just about all of them have grown much bigger.

For Samsung, that presents a challenge – how can it make each new model stand out from the crowd?

At its swish new exhibition space in London’s Kings Cross this week, Samsung invited technology journalists to come and try out the latest Galaxy Note.

Key difference

Set out on pine tables, the Note 10 and the Note 10+ looked… well, like any other smartphones – shiny slabs of glass.

They were of course huge, quite a bit bigger than the original humungous Note. The new Note 10 has a 6.3in screen and the 6.8in Note 10+ is virtually the size of a tablet.

But then again, Samsung’s latest flagship Galaxy S10+ has a 6.4in screen and the 5G version has a 6.7in screen.

The South Korean company’s two most important phone ranges – once easily distinguishable – now overlap.

But Mark Holloway, Samsung Europe’s senior product manager, says there is one key difference.

Terrible handwriting

“The S-Pen is the key reason most European users choose the Note,” he says.

Over the years, the stylus has become ever more sophisticated. In the Note 10, you can use it to scribble a message and have your terrible handwriting converted to text. It also works as a remote control for the camera.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10
Image copyrightSAMSUNG

Once, the idea of using something the size of a Note to take photos or shoot video was almost as laughable as doing such a thing with an iPad.

But now it has become commonplace and, as with any new phone, Samsung has a lot to say about its new camera features.

Extreme sports

You can use augmented reality emojis to give yourself a dinosaur’s head. And there’s a feature called Live Focus Video that lets you focus on a subject and blur the background in real time.

It also has a “zoom microphone” that gives enhanced audio from whatever is in the centre of frame, even from across a room.

And then there’s Super Steady video stabilisation, which Mr Holloway suggested might be used for extreme sports. Although, to me, the idea of a skydiver or downhill skier strapping on a Note 10 seems optimistic to say the least.

But it seems Samsung has concluded the Note now has to be all things to all people – the business users who will take advantage of the ability to transfer content seamlessly between the phone and their laptop, the Instagrammers using all the camera’s bells and whistles to make their Stories more creative, even gamers wanting to play Call of Duty on the move without draining the battery.

Plunging profits

And make no mistake, Samsung is in need of a hit. The Galaxy S10 won great reviews but less than stellar sales.

Last week, the South Korean giant reported plunging profits. Much of the blame was put on its core chip business but the lacklustre performance of the mobile phone division did not help.

The global smartphone market has stuttered, with the research company Gartner predicting a 2.5% decline in worldwide sales this year compared with 2019. And despite Huawei’s problems, Chinese rivals offering very capable phones at lower prices threaten to eat into Samsung’s market share.

The radical new folding phone was meant to signal the next phase of innovation but the new dawn has been delayed by production problems. The Samsung Fold is now due to go on sale in September.

Even then, expensive folding phones are likely to appeal to a small niche of early adopters at first.