Critical Communication History| The Premature Death of Electronic Mail: The United States Postal Service’s E-COM Program, 1978-1985

Ryan Ellis


In the late-1970s, the United States Postal Service (USPS) launched an innovative electronic mail service, “E-COM,” that sought to integrate networked computing and the postal system. Postal management envisioned E-COM as a path-breaking program that would carve out a key place for postal service in the coming information age. The following examination of the ultimate failure of E-COM contributes to the history of networked computing and communications, while additionally providing a unique perspective on the current precarious state of postal service in the United States. Typically, the decline of postal service is considered to be the result of the “natural” obsolescence of an old medium in the face of new technologies, or it is linked to the failings of a public agency in the face of nimble competition. Yet revisiting E-COM challenges these dominate narratives: A consideration of E-COM highlights the role that private telecommunications companies played in preventing the expansion of postal service into new markets and, importantly, draws attention to the ways in which patterns of technological change are historically and politically situated.

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