February 8, 2007

Pitney Bowes

And the men behind the brand are...
Arthur Pitney and Walter Bowes

There are better ways to make your fortune than dealing with the United States government. Arthur Pitney received a patent for his postage meter in 1902 but it was not until 1920, four administrations and half a dozen postmaster generals later, that the United States Postal Service accepted metered mail rather than stamps.

Pitney was born in Quincy, Illinois in 1871. As an infant he was stricken by polio and left with a shortened left leg. In 1890 he came to Chicago as a clerk in a wallpaper store. When Chicago staged the Columbian World's Fair in 1893 Pitney spent days looking at the marvelous mechanical inventions on display.

He soon became involved in mailing operations at work. Bulk mailing in the 1800s was not only slow and tedious but costly. At times it seemed as many stamps disappeared as made it onto envelopes. Stamp robberies were common. To Pitney there must be a better way.

He began to experiment with a machine to imprint envelopes with postage which would be pre-purchased at the post office. Others in England, Germany, Norway and even New Zealand had tried to develop similar machines but it is probable that Pitney never heard of any of them. Without hobbies or avocations the idea of a postage meter drove him.

He found a partner and formed the Pitney Postal Machine Company even before receiving his patent in 1902. The gamble seemed to pay off when he was invited to the demonstrate his machine for the postmaster general in 1903. The machine worked flawlessly but the United States Postal Service didn't see the need for such a machine.

Pitney went back to work at the wallpaper store, continuing to try and win approval for his machine. Years passed. Money became scarce waiting for approval from the Postal Service. Tension from the situation cost Pitney his marriage in 1910.

Meanwhile testimonials from companies who had seen demonstrations of the machine pile up in Pitney's files. To help increase recognition of his machine Pitney changed the name to the American Postage Meter Company with a former Chicago postmaster as titular president. Pitney quit his job to work as the company's only full-time employee.

In 1912, nine years after Pitney's first demonstration, another test was ordered. As the machine performed splendidly for amazed onlookers Pitney stood in a corner, struck by the realization that he could make the machine more practical by designing the printing and registering mechanism detachable for easy transport to the post office. He stopped the demonstration and Postal Service agreed to a new test with the improved machine when it was ready.

Pitney quickly re-designed his postage meter. But months went by without any government action. Dejected, Pitney resolved to forget the machine and left for Chicago for an advertising job in Joliet, Illinois. He was there only a short time when he learned the Postal Service was interested in a full-scale test.

Pitney placed six machines in offices for use for three months. The first experimental machine was in use on January 28, 1914 and headlines screamed the next day across the country: MAY TAKE THE PLACE OF STAMPS and MACHINE TO STOP STAMP LOSSES.

There were raves from the companies involved. The Chicago postal committee officially endorsed the postage meter. Pitney was ecstatic. But when war broke out in Europe the necessary enabling legislation was shelved. Pitney then received a letter from the Postal service, "...we see no need for such a machine as an adjunct to the Postal Service."

A despondent Pitney took a job selling insurance.

Walter Bowes was a natural-born salesman. As a young employee of the Addressograph Company he smashed all sales records. After barely a year of working, at the height of his earning power, Bowes quit and went sailing on his 23-foot sloop.

In 1908 the 26 year-old Bowes was back selling check endorsing machines. In 1909 he bought the Universal Stamping Machine Company. Two years later he began selling a letter-cancelling machine to the Postal Service. To Bowes, however, stamps were stupid in an age of mechanization. He set out to make his own letter-cancelling machine obsolete.

Bowes had an idea to print stamp facsimiles on letters and use a counter to verify usage. He used in post office contacts to promote the idea. But the concept would allow anyone to enter the stamp-making business without complete safeguards. Why don't you talk with this fellow Pitney, who is working on a similar idea, he was told.

Bowes invited Arthur Pitney to visit him in Stamford, Connecticut in 1919. The plodding, single-minded inventor travelled east to meet the flamboyant, mercurial super-salesman. They formed the Pitney-Bowes Postage Meter Company. Pitney would work on improving the meter and Bowes would promote the idea in Washington.

Bowes won another test in 1920 and the postage meter was finally accepted for use in the United States postal system. They were now licensed to distribute postage meters but had to put together a factory, find capital, and hire personnel. Their easiest task was in the marketplace. The postage meter was not a hard sell.

By 1922 there were branch offices in a dozen major cities and 404 postage meters were in use. Each meter printed only a single denomination - 2¢, for instance - and sold for $1350, with a $10 monthly leasing fee. The company was blossoming but neither Pitney or Bowes was enjoying the success.

The two men were constantly at odds. During a board meeting in 1924 an obscure matter detonated Pitney's pent-up frustrations. He scribbled a resignation notice, handed it to Bowes and limped out of the room. Pitney sold his entire stock for $200,000.

For Bowes selling the meter to the Postal Service was the climax of his life. He had no interest in the details of running a business. An accomplished sportsmen he devoted much of his time to racing yachts and horses.

The government continued to hassle the young industry. Several federal hearings were held in Washington. At one investigation Arthur Pitney sadly denounced his life's work, claiming permit machines, which he was now manufacturing, were the best way to mail letters. Others championed the cause of the postage meter.

Pitney suffered a stroke in 1927 and died in 1933. Only his dogged persistence led to the adoption of the postage meter as standard office equipment. His efforts brought him little joy.

Walter Bowes was shifted from president to Chairman of Pitney-Bowes in 1938. But even that honorary position took too much time from steeplechases and point-to-point races. He retired with a 10-year consulting contract in 1940. Bowes continued to enjoy the good life until his death in 1957 at the age of 75.


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