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1857 had been an unexpectedly tough year for the freight delivery firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell. Saboteurs had destroyed three wagon trains, a debilitating winter delayed shipments, and the U.S. War Department was defaulting on payments essential to the firm’s survival. Desperate but not defeated, the company’s swashbuckling founder, Charles H. Russell, gambled what was left of the company’s future on a dicey but provocative proposition: to deliver mail from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento, Calif. – a span of 2,000 rugged and unforgiving miles – in 10 days.

Achieving the feat required not just healthy horses and the sort of “daring young men” Russell curried in his help-wanted advertisements, but a clever scheme for apportioning resources.

The brilliant stroke behind the plan for Russell’s Pony Express was the incorporation of a relay tactic. Every 75 miles or so, an exhausted rider would hand off the mail to a fresh-and-ready replacement. Horses, running at full gallop, would be swapped out more frequently – about every 15 miles. A collection of 165 relay stations thus was set up along the route, and riders willing to endure the harsh, dangerous job got about $100 a month plus room and board. (The most legendary of the bunch, a 15-year-old named “Buffalo” Bill Cody, arrived at the end of his route to discover that his replacement had been killed. Cody rode on another 85 miles, as the story has it, and had enough oomph left in him to return back to his original destination the same day.)

Although the Pony Express captivated a nation, it remained unprofitable until a fateful day in October of 1861 when a telegraph line serving the western U.S. was joined to a telegraph line serving the eastern U.S. In an instant, with a modern telecommunications network able to send messages from one coastline to another in seconds, not days, Charles Russell’s bold enterprise was excised to the scrap-heap of failed (albeit irresistibly romantic) communications businesses.
If the Pony Express was the predecessor of today’s U.S. Postal Service, and the telegraph the equal of today’s rapid-fire e-mail networks, it would stand to reason that the business of delivering letters, notices and other physical vessels of information would suffer the same fate as Russell and his partners. But instead, a curious truce apparently has broken out between the Internet and the mail carrier.

According to a July report from the mail industry research firm Pitney Bose called The Impact of Age, Generation and Life Stage on Use of Mail and Media, your 19-year-old niece gets just as much mail as your grandmother did. Yes, even in the age of instant messaging and BitTorrent.

“The pattern of mail use by 18-24 year olds is the same today as it was for every older generation,” writes the report’s author, Chrystal Szeto, who is quite aware, thank you, of the prevalence of computers and Internet connections among America’s youth.

“First, most personal mail sent between individuals disappeared decades ago when telephone rates declined, and not just recently as the result of email or the Internet,” Szeto writes. “Second, young adults of today still receive as much mail as their predecessors from older generations. Third, the higher the Internet penetration, the more mail that these young consumers receive.”

Point taken. For support, look at the creative hybrid of modern information technology and old-fashioned feet-on-the-street delivery called Netflix. It sends out via first-class mail in a typical month more packages (30 million) than there are installed DVRs in the U.S., residential DSL subscribers, or customers to Dish Network. Netflix, which takes orders over the Internet but fulfills them (usually within two days) through the Postal Service, offers an interesting lesson not in technology but in economics. For $11.99 a month, you can get four DVDs a month, watch them, and return them with free shipping. That’s a relative bargain, but there’s enough margin in the transaction for Netflix to make a profit. That wasn’t the case for Charles Russell and the Pony Express. Russell charged $5 to deliver a half-ounce letter, but it cost him $16. The simple takeaway: In the new-media age of 2005, just as in 1860, you can ride whatever horse you choose just as hard as you want. But when you reach the end of the line, you’d better get paid enough to make it all worth doing.

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