A cold welcome for the postal code

Postal codes are taken for granted in Canada today.

But when the familiar six-character letter / number system was introduced, postal workers encountered the code – and the automated mail sorting implication that came with it – with suspicion.

In 1972, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) actively boycotted the postal code.

Against automation

“I’m boycotting the postal code. And you ? Postal workers encountered the new system with suspicion in 1972. (Archives Radio-Canada / Week-end)

“The automation program is completely postal code based,” said CUPW spokesperson Jean-Claude Parrott, rolling his eyes at the suggestion that the union opposed the progress. “Postal workers do not have the real right to negotiate the effect of automation.”

CBC reporter Tom Leach alleged that because of the boycott, mail sent to Montreal using the zip code was taking longer than mail without a zip code because workers were withholding it.

The union’s Toronto local president Lou Murphy said the automation was happening too quickly.

“They are trying to change it too drastically,” he said. “If they had worked slower… it would have been a lot better.”

Automation at the post office using a code on each letter had been tested at least as early as September 1952, as shown in the clip below.

Post office research project investigates mail sorting problem

Will a 1952 experimental method of assigning codes to each piece of mail speed up the system? 2:15

Each letter was fed into a reader, where a worker typed in a code that was translated into a sequence of dots.

A sequence of stitches on each letter could tell the machine where it should go when sorting. (CBC Archives / News Magazine)

“The letters pass an electric eye that scans the code like the envelope goes through a small round hole,” the announcer explained in a 1954 report on an experiment at the Ottawa post office. “The eye takes note of each point and signals what it has read by means of an impulse.”

From there, the machine consulted its memory to determine where to insert each letter.

“A machine doing the work of 500 human sorters,” the announcer continued.

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