Thursday, July 1, 2010

Postal Mechanization During the Centennial Period

The automation of letter cancellation and sorting was at the trial stage when the Centennial definitives were first issued, but by early 1974 the Post Office Department began the national implementation of mechanization.

Collectors of the Centennial definitives are well aware of the automation trials thanks to the many authors who have shared their knowledge of the topic since the 1960s. This article will not try to duplicate those excellent efforts. My objective is to briefly summarize with covers how the Canadian Post Office went from the trial phase to national implementation of automation.

1. Winnipeg Trials


In 1962, the automation of letter cancelling and sorting began in Winnipeg on a trial basis. The system called SEFACAN (segregation, facing and cancelling) was developed in Great Britain.


A tumbling drum sorted mail into size categories. Two of the lengths of mail separated by the segregator are shown below:

Facing and Cancelling

Stamps distributed in Winnipeg were coated with phosphorescent bars (Winnipeg tag), visible under ultra-violet radiation. Harrison and Sons manufactured the "Letallite B2" phosphor applied to the stamps. The machine was designed to detect the phosphorescence and thus the position of the postage stamp on the envelope. The letter was then correctly oriented for cancellation.

The phosphorescent bars on the stamps were detected by the machine allowing it to properly cancel this letter:


The Winnipeg machine sorted letters into two categories : local and out-of-town (forward) based on the phosphorescent bars on the postage stamps. The 4 cent stamp paying the local letter rate was coated with one bar (left or right side of the stamp), while the 5 cent stamp and other denominations were coated with two bars. The machine's sorting function of the machine ended on November 1, 1968 when the letter rate was eliminated. There was no further need to coat the 4 cent denomination differently.

a) Local letter sorting

The single bar on the single 4 cent stamp below indicated that it was a local letter:

Winnipeg local letter, April 5 1967
Left side tagging

b) Forward letter sorting

Prior to late 1968, the 4 cent stamp was the only denomination coated with a single bar. All other values were coated with continuous phosphorescent vertical bars on both sides of the stamp.
The machine interpreted multiple bars as being non-local mail. Local mail prepaid with denominations other than the 4 cent stamp were likely missorted.

The two bars on the 5 cent stamp are seen under UV radiation.

Forward letter to Clinton, B.C., March 28, 1967
2-Bar tagging
The scanner detected two bars and the letter was sent to the forward stream.

b) Pitney-Bowes Facer Canceller

In the late 1960s, a second type of facer canceller was installed in Winnipeg and other Canadian post offices. Manufactured by the Pitney-Bowes Corporation, the MK-II facer-canceller worked on a reflected light principle. A light beam reflected from the moving letter into the machine's electric eye sensors activated the mechanism. The 6 cent stamp's colour was changed from its original orange to black to permit easier detection of the stamp's location on the envelope by facer canceller machines.

Both the Sefacan and Mark-II facer canceller were used to face and cancel mail at the Winnipeg post office. Kenneth Rose reported in his BNA Topics article "Tagging Along" that the Sefacan machine was outperforming the Mark-II:

"Mr. M. Gardiner, who is engineer in charge of the electronic equipment in Winnipeg was most helpful in answering questions...he advised that Sefacan still has a big advantage over the new Pitney-Bowes Facer-Canceller (12% rejection as compared to nearly 30 %)...

Kenneth Rose Tagging Along BNA Topics #3 (1971) 234

The Winnipeg trials however did not lead to national implementation of Sefacan machine facing and cancelling. Instead, a new type of machine was installed and tested at the Ottawa post office in 1972.

2. Ottawa Trials

The Ottawa trials consisted of two components:

1) Mail Handling and Cancelling
2) Postal Code and Sorting

The Ottawa trials were a success and lead to the automated system still in use in 2010.

1) Mail Handling and Cancelling

In 1972 , a third type of facer-canceller machine was installed at the Ottawa Post Office. This system relied on the detection of fluorescent compounds. (Fluorescent substances emit light only during exposure to UV radiation whereas phosphorescent compounds (Winnipeg coating) emit light during and after exposure to UV radiation.)

The General Electric Company produced a fluorescent compound which was applied to stamps sold in the Ottawa area.

The first compound designated as OP-4 migrated and its use was discontinued. OP-4 was replaced by another compound OP-2 which did not migrate.

OP-4 tagging

Ottawa to London, July 24, 1972

b) Postal Code and Sorting

Canadians were assigned postal codes beginning in Ottawa in April 1971 and were instructed to include the addressee's postal code on the letter. Machines were developed that were able to scan and read postal codes on mail and mechanically sort the letters. The first generation of coding machines made by Bell Telephone, Belgium were not able to read printed or handwritten postal codes. Postal employees working at one of 24 keyboard consoles read the code on the envelope and typed the code on the envelope. The code was then be printed on the letter as yellow fluorescent bars which could be read by the machine and sorted.

First Day of Coding and Sorting

The Mechanized Letter Sorting system began handling live mail on August 22, 1972. The souvenir cover below with enclosed letter was sent to the Administrator General of Posts, Belgium, c/o an Ottawa address, K1H 6V5 :

Typed cachet

Console Numbers

As discussed above coding operators worked at one of 24 consoles. The console number was printed in fluorescent ink on the face of the envelope along with the postal code bars. The console numbers were printed in an upright orientation but there was a concern that the number could be printed on items such as carbon multi-form invoices and the console numbers were later printed sideways.

Console number 3

Outbound Mail

Ottawa to Welland "L3B 5S3", October 11 1973

Console Number : 6 upright
Yellow fluorescent bars representing the postal code

Inbound Mail

Inbound printed matter from Sienna, Italy to Ottawa "K1H 0L2", November 15, 1972

Operator of console 3 keyed in the fluorescent bars

Upright console number 3

Outbound international letter and returned

The letter below was sent to Israel and returned. The coated stamps allowed for automated cancelling of this letter to Israel. The return address was on the back of the letter and when it was returned to Ottawa, the console operator keyed in that postal code which was printed on the back of the letter for mechanized sorting. It was then subject to further re-direction.

Ottawa to Israel, 1973 (month indistinct but after March 1973)

OP2 tagging on the stamps

Return address "K1J 6M2" Ottawa

Console operator 19 keyed in postal code K1J 6M2 and fluorescent bars were printed on the back of the envelope

Upright console number 19

3. National Implementation

The Ottawa trials were successful and beginning in 1974, the automated machines were installed across the country. On February 1, 1974, Winnipeg became the second post office to implement fluorescent detection of stamps and the use of coding machines.

Local Winnipeg letter, March 4, 1974

  • OP-2 fluorescent coating on 8 cent definitive stamp
  • Yellow fluorescent bars postal code
  • Console number "20" (sideways)