JThe Post Office instructions for “finger gymnastics” contain 12 in-depth steps, from “shake every joint of the limp hand” to elaborate explanations of how to bend, stretch and shake each finger . These exercises were designed to prepare the numbers for a 1950s “postal coder” who was starting his shift. After training, coders were typing postcodes at over 2,000 letters per hour – until the system became fully automated in the mid-1990s.
Many of us use our zip code every day, from typing on a GPS to shopping online, without thinking too much about those letters and numbers. A new exhibit at the Postal Museum seeks to change that. Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes dates back to the beginnings of our area codes in ingenious Victorian London, to the 1930s and the marvelous red-brick Post Office search station that began to develop automation, to the strikes of 1960s as workers faced incoming mechanization and low wages, the ad campaigns of the 1980s and, now, the way we are profiled by our zip code. Like a stamp on a letter, this exhibit is small but effective and covers a lot of ground.
“In the mid-1950s, the post office developed Britain’s first successful sorting machine, known as the Elsie,” says Collections Manager Chris Taft. “All post office machines have been given human names.” Indeed, besides Elsie (Electronic Letter Sorting Indicator Equipment), there was Ernie (the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, built to pick premium bond winning numbers) – both with recognizable names so as not to scare the public with all this state-of-the-art automation.
Elsie was born at Dollis Hill research station in north-west London, which opened in 1933. A poster paying tribute to the ‘Men of Dollis Hill’ – it was mostly men apart from some women like Dame Stephanie Shirley, who worked at the research station early in her engineering career – and their “modern miracles” shows them testing everything from the lifespan of a rubber stamp to the effects of lightning on telegraph poles. These mid-century mavericks, portrayed as clean-shaven if slightly disheveled scientists, were developing a machine and sorting system that could code and process the growing load of mail. Some of the technology had earlier been used for Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, which was designed at Dollis Hill by postal engineer Tommy Flowers, and aided codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II world.
There’s an Elsie at the center of the exhibit, a charming machine in that lovely 50s mint green, with curves and cogs. The locations marked with the original black tape labels display the newly coded addresses such as “Min of Soc Security”. A single operator could use it, but they would need to know their geography (if the sender hadn’t written the county on the envelope), as well as remember over 140 codes that would sort the mail, ensuring that it happens right part of the country. “The Post Office realized that if they asked the public to write these codes on the letters, it would make the sorting process easier,” Taft says. “Then, the operators only have to enter the code without having to memorize anything. This is basically where the postal code comes from.
A new longer code, which we recognize today, was developed and tested in Norwich in 1959 – although some people have said they had no intention of using their new postcode as the price of postage was already too high (“HAVE NOT WRITTEN LETTERS SINCE POSTAGE WENT UP TO 3d,” a comment card read in indignant capitals), the trial was successful, and the postcode was rolled out in the rest of the country. In 1974, every address had one. Over the next decade, the Post Office ran advertising campaigns to encourage people to use theirs, until it was judged that we all had understood the message.
Today, postal codes have become an integral part of life, but have had negative effects that the Post Office did not foresee. “People talk about the postcode lottery, about how you might not qualify for certain health facilities based on your postcode,” Taft says. A zip code can affect real estate prices and things like car insurance. “You may live on a very quiet and safe road, but your auto insurance may be inflated because you’re in a postcode area where crime is considered high.”
You probably remember postcodes from your childhood, and there may be an emotional attachment or importance given to them, even if they’re just a “tool for the post,” says Taft. “Sometimes places and businesses ask for postcode changes or to be in a different postcode. The famous example is the Wimbledon football club. When AFC Wimbledon returned to Plow Lane in 2020, their new stadium was less than 200 yards from the original, but had slipped into a different postcode – many club members, attached to the old postcode SW19, wanted it to be changed from SW17. “But it doesn’t really work that way,” adds Taft. “If you change your postal code, your message will end up in the wrong place. That’s all it is – a way for Swiss Post to find out where to send your letter. A postcode doesn’t respect political constituencies and often not even counties, it’s just an everyday number that imposes a bit of order in our lives.