The Most Explosive Mail Ever Sent


On June 8, 1959, a large Regulus I nuclear missile pointed straight at America’s shoreline. The missile was perched on a submarine lurking about 100 miles off the Florida coast. Just before noon, it blasted into the clouds, traveling more than 100 miles in just 22 minutes, and landed squarely on its target, the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla.—successfully delivering 3000 pieces of mail.

For as long as people have been sealing envelopes, they’ve been finding ways to get messages to their destination faster. During the late 1800s, mail balloons and gliders competed with carrier pigeons for airspace. When airplanes swooped in, people were still unsatisfied with the wait. By the 1930s, inventors were toying with something even faster: rockets.

The idea wasn’t new. Scientists had been mulling “mortar mail” since 1810, with mixed results. In the 19th century, people on the island of Tonga used military rockets to blast mail over the reefs to Samoa. (Most crashed into the sea.) After World War I, German and Austrian scientists resurrected the idea. In 1931, an amateur rocketeer named Friedrich Schmiedl successfully launched 102 letters across a mountain in the Alps. Shortly after, businessman Gerhard Zucker pitched the idea to the U.K. government. He exhibited the technology by stuffing more than 1,200 envelopes into two rockets and firing them over some Scottish isles. They exploded.

The United States didn’t take rocket mail seriously until the Cold War. By then, the volume of mail had spiked more than 30 percent and Arthur Summerfield, the postmaster general, was desperate to deal with the glut. So in 1959, officials hosted an experiment: They transformed the USS Barbero, a nuclear sub, into a floating post office. They removed the nuclear warhead on a Regulus I cruise missile, replaced it with two postal mail containers, and blasted it to Florida. It stuck a perfect landing.

Summerfield joyfully declared, “Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India, or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” He neglected the fact that postal workers needed time to sort and route the mail. Plus, it was the 1950s. Americans weren’t super excited to see rockets zooming over their backyards. The government eventually got the memo.

The Reason There's Over a Hundred Abandoned Giant Arrows Across the U.S.

Being an airmail pilot in the 1920s was a dangerous occupation—according to Half as Interesting, the average person in that profession died after just 900 hours of flying. One of the biggest dangers had to do with navigating at night; once darkness fell, pilots often had no idea where they were going. Aviation maps didn't exist yet, and this was decades before the days of GPS. For a while, pilots had to rely on giant bonfires next to landing strips. But eventually the U.S. government hit on a solution: thousands of giant glowing arrows, known as airway beacons, showing the way across the country. The arrows, accompanied by lighted towers and erected every 10-15 miles from New York to San Francisco, made airmail faster, cheaper—and most importantly, much safer for pilots.

By World War II, most of the arrows were scrapped as advances in radar and radio communications made them obsolete, but at least 121 still remain across the country. (CityLab notes that Montana still uses about 19 of them for pilots flying through the mountains.) And they haven't been entirely forgotten: The site Arrows Across America is devoted to photos and details of the remaining arrows.

You can learn more about how the arrows worked, and where they are now, in the Half as Interesting video below.

Live Smarter
USPS's 'Informed Delivery' Service Will Email You Pictures of the Mail You're Getting Today

In the world dominated by email, you may not always be excited to check your physical mailbox. But USPS’s Informed Delivery could change that. The service can tell you whether you want or need to check your mail that day, according to the Daily Dot, because it emails you images of every single piece of mail you’re scheduled to receive.

Once you opt into the service—which recently became available nationwide—USPS will send you an email each day before 9 a.m. with scanned images of every piece of mail you are due to receive. If you don’t receive the letter that you’re scheduled to get that day, you can immediately notify USPS by checking a box on the webpage. The service doesn’t show you images of anything bigger than a large envelope, so you can’t see your packages. However, it will give you status updates for them and allow you to leave delivery instructions.

If there’s a blizzard and you really don’t want to go outside for anything less than a paycheck or your long-awaited tax refund, you’ll know whether or not the slog to the mailbox is worth it. Informed Delivery is also a good way to make sure you’re actually getting the mail you’re scheduled to receive, potentially foiling mail thieves looking to steal your identity—or just mail carriers who lose your letters. The service lets you track mail for the whole week, showing you scans of the letters you received each day for the past seven days.

As of now, it seems like USPS still has a few kinks to work out. In some cases, the service not only shows the user mail for direct members of their household, but also possibly a neighbor’s mail, too, if the user is in an apartment building—meaning the service might not be as private as it should be. (This happened to me, although not to other Mental Floss staffers who use the service.)

According to an automated email from the USPS explaining this mishap, it could be because the "unit/complex is not coded down to a unique delivery point barcode, which is a requirement for this service.”

So for some apartment buildings, this may be an accidental spying tool. The images are only of the outside of the envelope where the address window is, so at least it’s not revealing much. It’s clear that the service isn't perfect yet, but it’s still pretty useful in the meantime.

[h/t Daily Dot]


More from mental floss studios